Support circles: A design sketch

If we steer clear of fantasies of going viral or starting something like wikipedia, how do we envisage contributing to new infrastructures that further our work and lives?  This sketch of support circles arose from two recent discussions with colleagues—one face to face; the other via skype—the face to face one addressing crowd sourcing of review of writing for publications; the skype one addressing group process in situations such as Occupy meetings.

  • Support circles arise when a person takes the initiative to recruit 5-6 people for a one-year, renewable relationship of mutual support, in which these people also agree to recruit 4-5 additional other people into their own support circles.  (If a person has 5 people in their circle there is space for the person to be invited into the circle of someone else.)
  • Ideally, people bring into their circles some people who will be more like mentors and others who will be more like advisees—at least at the start of the relationship.
  • The format and frequency of interactions with members of a support circle is proposed by the person recruiting others to their circle and fine-tuned with them before they join.
  • A support circle relationship can be discontinued by either party at any time on a “no-fault” basis.  Preferably, however, the transition occurs at the close of a year and is accompanied by a “plus-delta” evaluation of the experience.
  • In addition to plus-delta evaluations, which can take place after any interaction, support circle relationships use tools and processes such as clearness committee, dialogue hours, supportive listening, and believing and doubting feedback.  Picking up on this last process, one guideline is that criticism and doubting never precedes or overshadows appreciation and amplification of what has been achieved.  The overall ethic is that people work to support others to do the best work they can given the circumstances.
  • Another guideline is that a person can call on their support circle at any time—for regular check-ins and during crises.  To make such support sustainable, no person has more than 6 support circle relationships and each person in their circle has 4-5 other support circle relationships of their own to help if any one relationship becomes especially challenging or draining.
  • When establishing a support circle for the first time, arrange for the first relationship to “expire” in 2 months, the second 2 months later, and so on.  The shorter initial relationships are then renewed for a year (or replaced by a different 1-year relationship).  This scheduling ensures that no more than 2 months goes by without a person having to take stock of at least one relationship and perhaps their circle as a whole.
  • Google plus is well suited to sending messages to one’s support circle and relaying messages, when appropriate, received from members of your circle.
  • Support circles can influence peer-to-peer networks and crowd-source processes by
    • modeling appreciative feedback and evolving standards or guidelines for this
    • helping people get clear about where they want to put concerted effort into engaging others with their ideas (as against passively expecting our ideas to get published and picked up that way)
    • contributing to concatenating support circles that make transparency in feedback safer.

Reports of active support circles welcome.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

8 Responses to Support circles: A design sketch

  1. Alex Mueller says:

    Peter – While I still indulge fantasies of pseudo-Wikipedia collaboration, I appreciate the principles you’ve articulated here, mostly because they could be adapted for large or small-scale “crowdsourced” projects. And such circles would certainly value the interpersonal relationships of support groups, which requires that participants invest in the success of each other’s work. I guess my main fear is that engagement might be lost if the projects of the support circle are not themselves linked in some significant ways. Nevertheless, you know that I’m an advocate of the “believing and doubting” method of response, particularly because it fosters a sense of generosity and investment in the work at hand. As you note, our main goal should be the quality of the work, which I believe can be greatly enhanced within a network of stake-holders.

    • “I guess my main fear is that engagement might be lost if the projects of the support circle are not themselves linked in some significant ways.” I am thinking that the person establishing a support circle might be collaborating on a range of projects with a range of people mostly not in the support circle. That means that the support in a support circle is free of the burden of helping the person out on their projects. Instead, support circles provide space in which supporters can appreciatively help you reflect and clarify your own path ahead (where that path includes how and when to collaborate in various projects).

      • Alex Mueller says:

        I see. So this is a kind of meta-group support, in which the participants share their thoughts on their progress, frustrations they encounter, etc. and not necessarily their own work. If the participants are working in different fields I could certainly see that helping out with the work itself might be a burden. If, however, the group is formed around a common intellectual goal, I don’t think such investment in each other’s work would be a burden. For example, it doesn’t feel like a burden to me to help people who are working on crowdsourcing projects, digital textualities, or book histories because I am intimately engaged in such work.

      • I agree that a support circle could be “formed around a common intellectual goal.” I wonder how a meta- circle would feel to someone in a shared-focus circle and vice versa. I also wonder if commitment to the hared focus would eclipse the time each of us needs to reflect on how the shared project intersects with our idiosyncratic life course.

      • Alex Mueller says:

        I think you’re right that a support circle would be able to offer sustained support over time that individual project-focused would not. As I write this, I’m thinking about my occasional participation in a blog called “In the Middle” (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/), which offers a space in which the bloggers share work online and receive feedback from readers. While my work is not being directly helped by this blog, my investment in the larger intellectual questions that the blog and its readers address make my participation worthwhile. And because the blog audience is relatively large and stable, I don’t feel the pressure to be contributing all of the time. I only participate when I feel compelled by the material being presented or when I have the time.

  2. One worry I have about the proposal is the chain letter implications. That is, in arranging my 5-6 supporters, they are committing themselves to arrange 4-5 supporters and so on. Here’s a modification that allows time to establish the structure of concatenating circles.

    Support circles arise when a person takes the initiative to recruit over the course of 9-12 months 5-6 people for a one-year, renewable relationship of mutual support, in which these people also agree to recruit over the course of 9-12 months 4-5 additional people into their own support circles.

  3. Revision:
    When establishing a support circle for the first time, arrange for the first relationship to “expire” in 12 months, the second 2 months earlier, and so on unless you get to a point where the expiry would be less than 2 months away. For that relationship and from then on any new or renewed relationship is for 12 months. This staggered scheduling should ensure that no more than 2 months goes by without a person having to take stock of at least one relationship and perhaps their circle as a whole.

  4. Question: What to do if someone in your circle lets their circle lapse? A: Check in about that and see if the person needs encouragement to reinstate it. At the annual renewal, if there is still no circle, find a replacement relationship for the next year.
    Question: Why the insistence that everyone have their own support circle? A: 1. So you can always ask for support knowing that if it burdens or stretches the other person, they have support they can draw on. 2. There is a fundamental reciprocity in which everyone involved gives support from a position in which they recognize that they need support also.

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