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Talking circles: the power of hearing out

Talking circles: the power of hearing out

Being listened to allows us to be understood in all our complexity and validates our experiences and in a way gives meaning to our lives
people talking in a group
Representational image | Shutterstock

Ever wanted to talk and found no one to listen? Work pressures, hectic lifestyles, gadget addiction; all of these have meant we no longer connect strongly with relatives and friends. Listening circles, which have surfaced to help people connect with themselves and others, seem to offer a solution.

A bit of history…

Indigenous Americans used talking circles or peace-making circles for decision-making, conflict resolution, healing, and support. Similarly, Africa has always held high the concept of Ubuntu, or the spirit of togetherness and humanity that stresses on the bottom line of our collective existence that “I am, because we are.”

What is a listening/deep listening or sharing circle? 

  • A platform/practice that allows people to identify and acknowledge or express their feelings, help connect with themselves
  • Explores the art of sharing personal stories and listening without interfering; encourages empathy
  • An inclusive and reflective environment
  • A non-judgemental space
  • Building a sense of community is key

Being listened to allows us to be understood in all our complexity and validates our experiences and in a way gives meaning to our lives, reveals a 2018 The study further elaborates on how listening strengthens us and creates a sense of coherence, safety, belonging, and value.

‘Not a space for solutions or therapy’

“Speaking and listening without judgement are powerful acts of community,” believes Nisha Abdulla, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Deep Listening Circle. She and psychotherapist Shalini Rao started the circle during the second wave of the pandemic when people were dealing with anxiety and grief.

Nisha emphasises that a circle is neither a space to seek solutions nor  therapy. “We are only lending an attentive ear to something that a person is expressing, or acknowledging for the first time,” says Nisha.

Their circle is structured to ideally start with a breath and body grounding session for about 20 minutes. This is followed by the listening session, and a closing circle.. They have always been an online circle and want to continue that way as many people join in from smaller towns (where they may not have access to such circles). They meet twice a month. “People speak about anything that matters to them or bothers them currently. It may be their angst about politics, family or work concerns, their love life…” Mostly people in their early 20s to the mid-40s form the circle at present.

A space to connect

What does a person gain by attending a listening circle? Nisha reiterates, “It is important to see the circle, not as a transactional space, but a place to connect with others who are being generous with their time and attention. It is a space to acknowledge the many emotions we carry through the week.” When people share their emotions, they realise the likeness of many such emotions. This process of sharing and listening, she says, builds a sense of community.

“Listening creates that space for others to share their innermost thoughts and feelings, and work through that process, to bring growth and healing,” says Bengaluru-based counsellor Antic Santosh.

Comfort in sharing with strangers

Karthik Selva is the founder of Listener’s Circle, Bengaluru, which has held close to 50 circles in the city since 2018 (they had a long pause during the pandemic because they wanted to host in-person circles). “The reason we need listening circles is that people don’t have enough spaces to express themselves freely without having others judge them,” says Selva. Most importantly, many do not have an audience when we want to talk about something. “Also, people have an uncanny comfort sharing their stories with strangers,” he says.

Almost 30 to 40 per cent of those who attend Selva’s monthly circles – attended by 20 people per circle — share stories about the rough patches they are going through.

“We never screen the content of who is going to say what. We never have a theme.  We only spell out certain basic guidelines. Many tell us funny stories from their life, share about their travels and adventures,” says Selva. A team of volunteers help him host the circle.

You are not alone

Thirty-year-old Soumya John, a freelance writer and content creator, started going to the Listener’s Circle simply to engage with people. Since June 2022, she has participated both as a listener and speaker in several circles. A self-declared introvert, she says she was finding it challenging to ease into social life, post pandemic.

“For me, it was about the whole experience; not just about listening or sharing. What I noticed, though, was the ripple effect my sharing and listening had.” Initially, she listened and then felt she should also share, lest she become a voyeuristic listener alone. “After the event, I would walk up to people and spark a conversation. Two or three others approached me after I spoke and shared about how they were introverts too. I went to the circle with no expectations. I see the circle as a community with give and take; a space where others would know they are not alone.”


Padmalatha Ravi, an artist and therapist and co-facilitator of the Deep Listening Circle shares some tips on being a supportive listener and a speaker in a circle:

For listeners:

  1. Almost 9 out of 10 times, people just want to be heard, and are not seeking
  2. Be aware that this is not a solution space – unless a speaker openly asks for/seeks a solution.
  3. Keep statements to “I” to avoid doling out advice – talk about what “I felt” or “I did” or “This worked for me” when offering suggestions.
  4. Be open to different experiences. One may have gone through a similar journey but may have felt differently about it. Remember all feelings are valid.
  5. Silence is hard to work with in the beginning, but silence plays a huge role in being a good listener in a circle. While it is human and we are conditioned to respond immediately, try not to jump in. Sometimes silence is all a speaker seeks/needs.

For speakers/people expressing themselves:

  1. Firstly, know that the circle is a safe and non-judgemental space, where all experiences are valid.
  2. One can share as much or as little as one wants. That is allowed. No one will ask you why, or what happened.
  3. Also remember that this is a group space, and one cannot take up all the air in the room. There are other speakers as well in the circle. If you are given a time limit to speak, try to stick to it.
  4. When one is not speaking, one can be a “listening body.”
  5. Sometimes, people take time to open up. It is okay to sit silently for the first two or three circles.
  6. All problems are valid and equal. There is no comparison; there is no big or small problem.
  7. Remember that there will be no prodding or leading questions asked.
  8. Sometimes, some listening circles adopt breathing exercises or visualisation techniques to prepare speakers to relax and feel comfortable to start talking. This is the circle’s way of facilitating conversations.

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