Essay

What I Observed about “Circling” from an Authentic Man Program Facilitator

By Duff McDuffee on March 27th, 2012 1

“Circling” is the name of a technique performed by facilitators part of a group called Authentic World (also Authentic Man Program/AMP and Authentic Women’s Experience/AWE, and now Integral Center).

Recently Authentic World has become associated with a local community center in Boulder, Colorado called Integral Center (formerly Boulder Integral/Boulder Center for Integral Living). This community center is loosely associated with Ken Wilber’s Integral philosophy and Integral Life company. The new community center is emphasizing “a renewed focus on Integral Community and Relationship” which in practice means doing a lot of this circling technique in evening meetings and weekend workshops.

I observed this circling process just one time several years ago, as facilitated by a leader of the Authentic Man Program, so some of my recollections may be inaccurate. Since I’ve written previously about not singling out individuals on this blog anymore, and since my purpose in this article is to give my observations and interpretations of the technique itself for general analysis of it’s structure, I will leave names anonymous.

The reason I’m writing this is because many people I know and like are still involved with Integral, and I’ve not yet been able to express my observations and objections to this method in any context in which they would be heard. This is particularly ironic given the purpose of the circling technique is sometimes expressed as “seeing and being seen,” but in any case, writing is a method of expressing myself that I feel it is easier for me regardless of whether I’m “seen” or not.

Context
The group was a new men’s group in it’s 3rd or 4th meeting. A guest facilitator was invited into the group for the first time. He was from out of town.

The group had never done circling before. Circling was not explained as a process. The facilitator asked for a volunteer.

Client #1
The person being circled was not asked what they wanted. The facilitator was not said to be a psychotherapist, but indicated to me that he was trained in NLP. No disclosure forms were signed.

The client appeared anxious, gesturing nervously. The facilitator entered into non-verbal rapport by matching and mirroring physiology (body posture, breathing rates, gestures, etc.).

The facilitator then described his own experience, especially his feelings of what he imagined it was like to be the client. He also used mind-reading (guessing what the client experiences) and psychoanalysis into what he thought being the client was like, in an emotionally intense encounter (as in Encounter groups from the 1950’s). He also asked questions of the client, primarily about feelings (emotional and bodily). The facilitator calibrated with the client’s verbal and nonverbal feedback and adjusted his verbal patter to this feedback. The client appeared progressively more uncomfortable as this went along.

The facilitator seemed quite skilled at what he was doing. He frequently pointed out things to observe to the rest of the group, but was in complete control of the process and did not seek help in facilitating from participants in the group.

My interpretation was that the facilitator’s verbal patter was a combination of rapport building and aggressively humiliating/shaming the client’s psychological defense mechanisms for the purposes of inducing a dramatic abreaction.

Once the client abreacted (sobbing violently within about 10 minutes of being “circled”), the facilitator instructed the client to lie on the floor and instructed the group to place hands on the client as support as he cried, which we all did.

There was no ecology check (checking for objections or side-effects of the change/technique) or future-pacing (imagining having a new, more resourceful response in the future). I interpreted this to mean that the facilitator considered the abreaction therapeutic in itself and so did not bother to check, despite him claiming training in NLP.

The client was debriefed and he said he re-experienced a recent, moderately traumatic event during the abreaction–something he had forgotten about–and reported feeling relieved.

Client #2
Again no outcome was elicited from the client, leading me to believe that the facilitator thought the process itself is therapeutic without defining any client outcome. Again this is a strong departure from NLP change processes in which clients define outcomes and where abreaction is generally avoided.

The client had a background in martial arts and internal martial arts. The facilitator matched and mirrored physiology and began speaking his emotional and somatic experience aloud in combination with mind-reading and psychoanalyzing the client. None of his statements or analysis made the client abreact. The facilitator blamed this on the client as him being too emotionally guarded. The client agreed verbally, saying it may have to do with his martial arts practices, but still appeared unmoved. The client expressed a desire to feel more. The facilitator became more and more aggressive in his psychoanalysis but nothing lead to abreaction so he terminated the “circling.”

I interpreted the facilitator to be frustrated as he tried to “break” the client and elicit an abreaction. The facilitator explained to the group that it was OK to not get a strong emotional response from a client. I interpreted this to mean that he was saying it’s OK for the process to fail, that the goal was to get an abreaction but that it doesn’t work every time even for an experienced facilitator.

Again there was no ecology check or future-pacing because there was no defined outcome and apparently no change (which was undefined).

There was a third client but I can’t recall what happened then.

After
After the meeting, that night I felt unstable emotionally, high and hypomanic. The next day I felt emotionally exhausted, unstable, and mildly depressed.

Conclusions
Circling seems to be a method of group psychotherapy in the vein of 1950’s Encounter groups or Large Group Awareness Trainings. The primary purpose as a technique appears to be to induce abreactions through gaining nonverbal rapport, engaging in aggressive/challenging mind-reading and psychoanalysis, and then providing emotional and physical support once the client abreacts.

No outcomes are defined which implies that practitioners of circling assume that abreactions induced under nonverbal rapport are themselves beneficial regardless of client context or outcomes, a dubious assumption.

It is well known that abreaction is an unpredictable therapeutic intervention. Carl Jung expressed interest early in abreaction therapies but later rejected abreaction as a therapeutic method. In particular, abreaction has the common side-effect in many cases of simply reliving traumatic events over and over without gaining a more resourceful response. Psychological debriefing, a similar approach where a person recalls a recent traumatic experience and expresses their feelings about it to a therapist, has been shown to be the least effective treatment for PTSD, often making things much worse. Many toxic, cult-like groups like Scientology use abreaction therapies due to the intense emotional experience that bonds individuals to the group.

My conclusion is that circling uses an outdated and potentially harmful method of abreaction therapy in a context that should be called group therapy but is not following proper legal or ethical guidelines to do so. The structure of the process itself runs many risks, especially that of unnecessarily re-experiencing traumatic memories, and creating a cult-like therapy group which emphasizes aggressive emotionality. Ken Wilber and Integral have historically been associated with many toxic groups, authoritarian leaders, and religious cults, so this new community center seems to be making decisions consistent with past problematic associations.

Since there are many safer and more effective alternatives to abreaction psychotherapy, in my opinion there is no reason to select circling as a way to improve one’s relationships.

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Update 3/27/2012 6:33pm: Some discussion is occurring on Facebook here. You’ll have to friend me or some friend of mine to view and reply (you can always unfriend me later–no hard feelings).

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