Origins of the Samoan Circle

The following appeared in Public Involvement Techniques: A Reader of Ten Years Experience at the Institute for Water Resources (PDF, pages 265-270), a collection of articles on public involvement from 1983, prepared by James L. Creighton, Jerome Delli Priscoli and C. Mark Dunning for the Institute for Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

The Samoan Circle: A Small Group Process for Discussing Controversial Subjects

by Lorenz Aggens

Public officials or agency staff often need to hear from concerned publics about their problems, needs, fears and values before a decision is made on an issue of controversy in the community. People with opposing views will often fill a large meeting room, their mood charged with emotion. Many people in the room may hope to influence the decision by their cheers, or booing. Because each person is likely to get only one chance to speak, statements may have been written out for reading, or some especially articulate person will have been chosen to speak for a group of citizens. That responsibility, and the size and temperament of the audience, promotes oration by speakers and the use of words more designed to stir emotions than to share personal opinions and feelings about the subject at issue.

The person responsible for conducting such a meeting usually feels great personal stress over the need to ”control” the meeting and insure that the discussion is equitable and moderate. In attempting to be “in charge” while being fair and neutral, the person presiding over the meeting will often use tactics that will be seen as capricious or arbitrary by those vying for special recognition and influence. If the Chairman of the meeting is from the staff or policy board that will be making a decision on the issue under discussion, he or she is likely to become the target for stern admonitions, emotional appeals, and even threats. The people running, or the panel of decision makers sitting in the front of the room “hearing” from their publics, often feel that THEY have become the subject of the meeting. Instead of being able to listen carefully to what is being said, the chairman or meeting sponsors find themselves in the position of having to answer (or decline to answer) rhetorical questions and challenges.

It was after just such a meeting that the idea of the Samoan Circle was born. The staff of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (the regional planning agency for the Chicago metropolitan area) were ”debriefing”–otherwise known as licking your wounds–after a particularly abusive “meeting” between war parties in a land use dispute. Our discussions quickly turned to whether there was a better way to hear from both sides of an argument without being accused of being the “other side” by both sides.

One of the staff reported that, in some Pacific island communities he had read about (and Samoa might not be one of them), issues were debated, in years gone by, by calling together all interested parties to share their views in an open and equitable discussion format. After several days of feasting and drinking together, those who still felt there was an issue gathered in a circle to discuss the matter. No one was in charge of the meeting. Anyone spoke out who was stirred by the discussion. The more interested participants moved closer to the center of the discussion circle. The less interested remained on the fringe of the circle, or drifted away. The discussion went on and on until those most concerned in the outcome of the matter could arrive at some agreement. Then they all had a final drink together and went home.

With little to lose, the staff agreed that something like this should be tried, although we agreed that–despite their similarities to extracurricular activities at national political conventions–some features of the meeting process would have to be omitted.

Something like the process described in the accompanying article was tried, first on a group of about 30 people, and then with larger groups. At one of these meetings, someone asked for the name of the meeting process. The meeting facilitator, in a momentary flash of alliteration said, “Call it the Samoan Circle!” Efforts to retract that christening have failed. Most people who have used the Samoan Circle process more than once have called it something like a “discussion circle”, or omitted any title, as a means of saving a lot of time explaining something that may be anthropological baloney. [Although the process may not have its origins in Samoa, it has now been used there. However, a report by a government agency staff member notes that after the elders gather to discuss proposals by his agency, a drink is passed around among participants, the effect of which is to paralyze the vocal cords of all "off-islanders."]

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The article goes on to describe the Samoan Circle in more detail and how it has evolved since inception.

Lorenz Aggens is a founding member of IAP2 whom I had the pleasure to meet at the IAP2 USA Great Lakes chapter reception in Pewaukee, Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.

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