Life Energy via Gratitude

Part Two in a Three Part Series on Gratitude Circles

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

In my last blog, the first in this series on Gratitude Circles, I shared what motivated my creating Gratitude Circles and the context within Nonviolent Communication.  In this blog, Part Two, I share how to set up and conduct Gratitude Circles. 


Over time, driven by the desires described in Part One of this series, I experimented with different formats and developed the current practice I call Gratitude Circles.  While a kind of empathy group, Gratitude Circles are quite different in structure because (when held in person) they are kinesthetic (using our bodies in space) and mimetic (with the physical form/movement of the practice reflecting and creating meaning).  This is partly what makes Gratitude Circles so powerful:  there is a deep connection between our words, actions, and how we move our bodies through space. More, the very structure of the Circle is a testimony to the power of being seen and heard (witnessed) while held in a circle of community; it is an expression of community and interdependence (as the Walker travels the Circle, connecting with different people). 

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurman, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time

How many participate in a Gratitude Circle?

The ideal size for a Gratitude Circle meeting in person is six to ten people (including the facilitator). When the group gets larger than ten, it’s hard for everyone to hear each other and stay connected and engaged; with less than six people, there will only be five in the Circle to listen and witness when someone is “walking” the Circle and sharing gratitudes. So six-ten I find is the sweet spot in terms of numbers. If you have more than ten that would like to participate, I suggest offering more than one Circle or simultaneous Circles (if you have two experienced facilitators, to lead each Circle). 

Where do you meet? And how is the room arranged?

Choose a space where there is quiet and privacy (to support focus and attention) and where people can sit comfortably. Everyone participating in the Circle sits in a chair, in a small circle (with about a foot between each chair). I like everyone to sit in a chair rather than on the floor or with a back jack because I want everyone to be on the same level (energetically this is important); and for the person walking the Circle (who will stand and walk around it) to more easily connect and make eye contact with others in the group.  

How does it start?

Once the group is comfortably settled in their seats, the facilitator orientates the group, confirms group agreements (around confidentiality and holding the empathic space together), helps set intentions, and gives a demo of the process, including what it means to recap. Space is held for any questions.

When everyone in the group is clear and ready to begin, the group settles into silence (a space of silent empathy). Then, when someone is “called” or ready, that person will stand and turn to face the first person on their left. This person is the “Gratitude Walker” and others in the Circle, Witnesses. Anyone “walking” the Circle, goes in a clockwise direction/the direction of the sun; turning to the person on their left sets the Walker moving in a clockwise direction.

What does the “Gratitude Walker” do?

Standing before the person they are facing and making eye contact, the “Walker” shares one “micro” gratitude with the person they are facing (the Witness). When I say “micro” gratitude, I mean one, specific gratitude, usually one-three lines.  For example, this could sound like, “I am really grateful for the learning I have experienced at this retreat” or “I am really grateful for the learning I have experienced at this retreat and all the people I have met” or, at most, “I am really grateful for the learning I have experienced at this retreat, the people I have met, and what I’ve discovered about myself. It’s been powerful.” If details are added to the first thought/gratitude, these additional points are connected to the main, primary gratitude that was shared (in this example, that the speaker is grateful to have been at the retreat). One “micro” gratitude is shared at a time to support pacing, integration, and inclusion (since your next gratitude will be shared with the next person in the Circle). I also want the Witness to have ease in following your gratitude, and recapping it. 

Photo by Shyam on Unsplash

What does the listener or “witness” do?

The Witness (the person facing the Walker who has listened to/witnessed the gratitude that the Walker has shared) recaps back what they have heard. For example, in response to the above longer example, the recap might be, “I’m really hearing how much you have learned at this retreat, and how grateful you are, including for people you’ve met, and how you’ve grown. It’s been powerful for you.”  

Once the Witness recaps, they check with the Walker, “Is that accurate?” or “Did I get it?”  The Walker can then clarify or reiterate anything that was missed in the recap, especially if important to them.

Often in NVC practice, we prioritize empathy guessing about feelings and needs; if you’d like to add empathy after the recap, that’s fine. I also find that recapping is surprisingly powerful in itself and sufficient. More, recapping is something that people can very easily learn (while learning to empathize with feelings and needs takes more experience and practice). Receiving a recap of what you’ve shared is powerful because being heard, seen, and “witnessed” is one of the most profound and basic human needs. Hearing your words back, also helps with integration (taking in or “digesting” what you’ve shared before moving onto the next point). If you were going to add an empathy guess, in this example it might sound like: “It sounds like this experience has really given you a sense of community, insight, and growth.” 

What happens next?

Once the Walker confirms that the recap they received from the first person is complete and accurate, the Walker thanks the Witness (in words — ”thank you” — or gesture) and moves on to the next person in the circle (to the right of the person they just spoke to, continuing in a clockwise direction). Once they are facing and making eye contact with this new person, they share another gratitude that is alive for them in that moment. This gratitude could be related to the first one in some way (for example: “I’ve been wanting to come to this retreat for years and I finally decided to prioritize it. I am really celebrating how much effort that took for me, especially around taking time away from my family and work. And I did it!”) Or it could be a completely new or different gratitude. (For example, “In addition to coming to this retreat, I’ve also been reading more, journaling, and taking walks each week. I’ve really been focusing on self-development and self-care this year!”). You might also start a completely different thread. “I am so grateful to live in a place where I can connect easily with nature, and take walks each day.” Or, “I am really appreciating right now the friends I have…” Note that the gratitude the Walker shares could be about the person they are facing in the Circle at that moment, about themselves, or about anything in their life, world, experience or universe. What matters is being authentic, and listening for and speaking what’s true for you. 

When this new gratitude is shared (whatever it is), the new Witness recaps and checks if they heard the Walker fully and accurately. If the Walker feels complete (that they have been sufficiently heard), the Walker thanks this Witness and moves onto the next person (to the right), if they have more gratitudes to share. This process continues (gratitude sharing, recapping, thanking the Witness, and moving onto the next person) until the Walker feels complete.  Note that in Gratitude Circles, the Walker goes in the direction of the sun, moving on to the next person in the Circle,  including everyone in the order they are seated, skipping no one and choosing no one in particular.  Everyone in the Circle is part of the Circle, and participates actively via silent empathy and then via recapping when a Walker stands before them. 

How many gratitudes does the Walker share?

Gratitude Circles are, in effect, a self-connection and mindfulness practice, akin to a walking meditation.  During the process, the Walker is repeatedly checking in with themself — first, if they wish to walk the Circle; then what gratitudes are alive/authentic/true for them; and then when they feel finished or complete. In discerning completion, the Walker is holding multiple needs: for authenticity, aliveness and completeness for their own gratitude process in that moment as well as for mutuality, awareness, consideration and inclusion in relation to others in the group. 

Sometimes a Walker may think they are complete and there are, in fact, one or two more gratitudes that are “up” for them. Honoring what is true for you (rather than forcing yourself to end sooner, out of concern of taking “too much time”) is ideal so that you reach a place of sufficient closure and completion; at the same time, there may be others in the group who also would like to walk the Circle. So, as in everyday life, walking the Gratitude Circle involves the complexity of holding all needs with care, including your awareness and care for others, as well as care for yourself. 

When is the Walker finished?

The process continues until the Walker is complete with all the gratitudes they wish to share at this time.  Sometimes as Facilitator, if the Walker has shared just one or two gratitudes, or stopped abruptly, I may ask them to check in with themselves to see if they are truly complete. Is there one more gratitude alive for them to share? Gratitude, like empathy, is cumulative. Sometimes the gratitudes are related (the second, third or fourth gratitudes taking the earlier ones even deeper). If there is a gratitude left “hanging,” that is “up” for the person, then they will not feel quite settled or complete. 

When they are complete, the Walker thanks the entire group and returns to their chair and sits down.  At this point the room returns to silence until a new person stands, indicating they would like to walk the Circle, and begins.  

What do you do in the Circle if you are not Walking or Witnessing (Recapping)?

Gratitude Circles are a kind of empathy group with everyone in the group actively participating via silent empathy and holding the group’s focus and intention. Gratitude Circles are powerful for everyone in the group, even those simply listening or witnessing. Because we as human beings are naturally empathic and gratitude and focusing on needs-met is generative and deeply satisfying (relaxing, soothing, and expansive in our bodies), everyone participating in a Circle and witnessing/hearing the gratitudes also experience a sense of connection, abundance, inspiration and joy. 

Often, one person’s gratitude inspires others to reflect on their own lives and recognize areas and experience that they too are grateful for. At other times, because celebration and mourning are intimately connected, mourning can also surface in Gratitude Circles. By identifying needs that are precious to us and that we have experienced in life and value, we sometimes also remember moments where those needs were “up” for us and calling for our attention or missed. Those moments become bitter-sweet celebrations of gratitude and mourning. Regardless, Gratitude Circles gives us an opportunity for deep self-exploration and connection and the opportunity to explore interdependence and how we are all empathically connected. 

“Gratitude is wine for the soul. Go on. Get drunk.”

–Rumi

How long does a Gratitude Circle Last?

Gratitude Circles meeting in person run usually 60-90 minutes. About ten minutes are left at the end for harvesting and closure. 

What are the benefits of Gratitude Circles?

Gratitude Circles are healing, energizing and transformative because ultimately they invite us to connect with what is most meaningful and impactful in our lives. Being witnessed and heard by others adds to that impact and significance. Participants often comment on how surprisingly powerful it is to hear their words mirrored back, helping them integrate and take in themselves what they have shared. Gratitude Circles are also highly connecting and community building. It is an energizing and inspiring way to get to know others, to hear about what they most value, and what most brings them alive. 

As a bonus, I find Gratitude Circles are a powerful way to introduce Nonviolent Communication to others. Without learning or practicing the formal four steps of NVC, Gratitude Circles gives participants the opportunity to practice being empathically present (via silent empathy); checking in with yourself; and practicing recapping. More, as discussed above, this is real time practice in holding everyone’s needs with care: discerning when walking the Circle when you are genuinely finished and complete while also holding awareness and care for the needs of others in the group. Most profoundly, Gratitude Circles are a powerful example and experience of needs met — what I call experiencing the “power” of needs met (and what Robert Gonzalez calls the “beauty of the needs”). 

Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash

Interested in facilitating Gratitude Circles? 

Please first attend one yourself — so you have experienced it first hand before sharing it with others. Then request from Dian a copy of tips and instructions for facilitators of Gratitude Circles. 

Thank you for reading part Two in this Three part series. The next blog will focus on modifications for holding Gratitude Circles remotely, on line. If you are interested in participating in an online Gratitude Circle, learn more about upcoming dates and how to register here. 

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