Tag Archives: Peter Block

Change the room, change the culture

“Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize…Community is built when we sit in circles…Every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create…If the future we desire does not exist in this room, today, then it will never occur tomorrow…’change the room, change the culture’” (Block, P. Community: The Structure of Belonging, 151-152).

The Circle: Why Use It?
I am a big fan of the circle as a layout for meetings. This is mainly because I see this structure as a way of not necessarily meeting, but instead promoting conversation, collaboration and engagement. The circle provides a sense of belonging and community in the setting in which it is used.

The Circle: When to use it?
To be honest, I have rarely encountered a meeting situation where the circle has not been justifiable. However, circles work best when the group is small or has already had an opportunity to get to know one another. This is particularly true if some people in the room are familiar with each other, while others are meeting for the first time. Robert Chambers argues that this situation may lead some people to feel intimidated, although this can often be resolved by ensuring that some time is allowed for smaller circles and groups to mix before and after the larger meeting. An approach such as the “world café” can be very useful in this context.

Also, circles are not the only key to a healthy community. While the circle contributes to an engaged, participatory and inclusive culture, don’t forget that other factors such as facilitation and meeting organization, communication practice, organizational structure and attitudes towards change, competition and goals are also part of the picture. See my earlier posts, “Sustainable communities are dynamic communities” for more about this.

The How of the Circle: Addressing Common Pitfalls
I have been to many meetings that have attempted a circular formation, but unfortunately end up looking more like the outline of an octopus. While the imperfection of a squiggly, squished, uneven circle may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial to the success of a community. How we behave in formal or semi-formal settings often reflects, and inversely sets to the tone for, how we interact on a broader basis. Circles promote meetings and community cultures that are inclusive, engaged and productive.

With this in mind, I’ve created a list of six things to watch out for when meeting in a circle.

1. Evenness
This is where perfectionist design-freaks really help us out. A circle should be just that – circular, with no lumps, no bumps, or protrusions. An oval is not a circle. A rectangular board room table is not a circle. A circle has smooth, even sides. This means that everyone is brought into the group in the same way.

2. Height
Similarly, the height of the furniture (and if you are getting really picky, the type of furniture) should be the same.  I have been in many meetings where the narrow, ‘taller’ chairs are occupied by people who sit upright and seem more engaged in the meeting process. On the other hand, those sitting on a low couch are able to spread out their belongings (iPod, lunch, laptop, notes), slouch down and settle in. The ‘camp-like’ feeling of the couch seems to give these people license to tune out of the meeting. Alternatively, they may get so comfortable that they are unaware of how much or little they are participating.

3. Sight lines
Circles are particularly wonderful in that they provide us with an opportunity to look every one of our fellow community members in the eye, to speak directly to one another, and to feel like we are part of a group. However, there are times when a visual aid is needed. The flip chart or screen is brought out. Inevitably, the people sitting beside the screen are either cranking their necks around to see what is going on or are quietly hiding behind the screen, catching up on their email. If this is the case, try what Chambers calls a ‘clam shell’ formation (p. 92). This provides sight lines for everyone to see each other and the flip chart or screen. It also has the advantage of providing freedom of movement – people can come and go from the circle more easily than if it were completely closed. When people feel free, they are often  more ready to participate because the terms of engagement are in their control. On a related note, be mindful of how long people’s attention is being focused on the visual aid – is the purpose of the meeting to build collaboration and human contact or to have everyone focus on the screen?

4. Lack of space
This is a common issue when attempting to create a circular meeting environment. In attempting to fit lots of people into a limited space, one ends up with an oval or a squiggle, with some people sitting outside of the circle, some cross legged on the floor, and some people leaving the meeting altogether because there is clearly no room for them to be included. There are a few approaches to dealing with this. One is to try what Chambers calls a ‘double circle’ (p. 93). If a double circle won’t work, try for a triple circle. You might want to couple the double or triple circle with break-out sessions that allow for smaller groups of circles to meet. Another solution is to find another room – or if circumstances permit, go outside.

5. Hidden corners
Sometimes, there are people in meetings who hope to go unnoticed. Either they feel self-conscious, intimidated, worried about arriving late for the meeting, or are trying to multitask on an electronic device while everyone else is engaged in conversation. Often these people can be found in ‘hidden corners’. Of course, circles by definition have no corners. So what is a hidden corner? Here are some to watch out for: a circle that is a squiggle and hence, includes parts that look like ‘corners’; visual aids that are blocking the view of some participants; not making the circle big enough and late comers end up standing or sitting on the side lines; tasks that seemingly need to be constantly attended to and allow someone to slip away from the circle (fetching sticky notes, making coffee, etc.); and, finally, uneven seats that allow people to literally slouch into their own worlds. Of course, beyond the physical space, it is the role of the facilitator(s) to ensure that there is space for everyone, both physically and in terms of participation. It is the responsibility of everyone to create an environment where no one feels like they want to be in a hidden corner.

So, what are your thoughts on circles? Anyone have a photo or drawing of their meeting room that they are willing to share? Thoughts on the physical structure of meetings? Perhaps your image would inspire us to reorganize our spaces, or perhaps we could offer some feedback on how you might go about re-arranging your physical space so that it is more in line with the social space that you hope to create.


Peter Block is a well-known consultant and best-selling author. Two of his recent books – Community: The structure of belonging and The Abundant Community  – focus on how we participate in, and create, healthy vibrant communities.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter about how we understand and enact community within the framework of our lives that exist in place-based communities, taking into account the complexities of our simultaneous allegiances to multiple communities. Peter also offers a reflection on his personal experiences with community.

How do you think we can benefit from taking a break from our home communities? For example, retreating to conferences, taking part in long-term residential educational programs, or by simply choosing to live in another community for a specific period of time?

Conferences and educational intermissions are places for reflection. Place where thought is valued. Time slows down to a natural speed. Priceless, regardless of content or keynote speakers. Living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again. It is the antidote to the dulling and life consuming effects of like-mindedness.

Your work emphasizes place-based or neighbourhood communities. Do you see a role for online communities? How can we best imagine the possibilities for online media to contribute to, or create, community?

Online is romanticized community. It offers logistical advantage. So it ranks up there with the phone call, the mail, and the automobile. It is an easy way to know where we are meeting. It does nothing to insure or support the quality of relationship that community rides on. It suffers from a lack of accountability and touch. It most often becomes the substitute for community.

What can place-based or neighourhood communities and institutional communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, etc.) learn from each other?

Every place has a story and needs to produce its own narrative. It is useful in the act of creation. What sharing does for us is give us faith. Benchmarking is built on the promise of enhanced methodology, but all transformation has to ultimately be customized.

In your experience, what is the best example you have seen of youth contributing to community building?

Children, along with music and food and art, are the ultimate connectors. We need them in the room all the time, especially teenagers. They bring energy and passion into the room, plus they are not easily fooled. The best example is Elementz, a Center for Hip Hop and Respect in Cincinnati, Ohio.

What was the most powerful experience in building community in which you were personally invested?

First, starting a business at too young an age was life changing. Risky, interdependent, all on the line, strict measures that could not be denied, hard decisions to stop what was not working and asking people you cared about to move on. Had to show up. Second was my decision to become a citizen of my city, Cincinnati. To care about it. To act as an owner. It was not so much building community, as it was to join and find my voice in it, regardless of outcomes which have been very elusive. Ultimately led to the belief that all the youth in the city are my children, all of the difficulties in the city I have a hand in sustaining. All there is in the end is faith in each other despite evidence to the contrary. We live in a period of growing fear and fundamentalism, and community is our best, and maybe only, response.


John McKnight is one of the best-known figures in community development in North America. He has conducted research on social service delivery systems, health policy, community organizations, neighborhood policy, and institutional racism. He currently directs research projects focused on asset-based neighborhood development and methods of community building by incorporating marginalized people. He is the co-author of the best-selling Building Communities from the Inside Out, which describes an approach to community building that has become a major development strategy throughout the world. More recently, he co-authored The Abundant Community, which focuses on building healthy families and communities.

I had the pleasure of interviewing John about how we understand and enact community within the framework of our lives that exist in place-based communities, taking into account the complexities of our simultaneous allegiances to multiple communities. John also offers a reflection on his personal experiences with community. Watch for an interview with Peter Block, co-author of The Abundant Community, in my next post.

Many people feel like they belong to several communities simultaneously (school, neighborhood, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and so on). Given that you place an emphasis on the importance of building relationships in neighborhoods, what are your thoughts on this?

I’m especially interested in neighborhood relationships because neighborhood is a space where most of us live our childhood. Being an adult often means that we become mobile and lose a sense of place. If we are interested in how a “village raises children,” a neighborhood and the relationships of neighbors become very important.

What can place-based or neighorhood communities and institutional communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, military units/bases, etc.) learn from each other?

We live our lives in two kinds of groups. One is groups that are held together with money – business, government and not-for-profit institutions. The other kinds are community groups that are held together by care, concern and commitment. Institutions need to learn how to support rather than command and replace community groups. The reason is that there are all kinds of functions that only community groups can perform. These are the functions that you can’t pay for. Therefore, if they don’t perform their unique functions, our institutions can only provide a counterfeit alternative, such as, service rather than care, medicine rather than health, schooling rather than wisdom, etc.

In your experience, what is the best example you have seen of youth contributing to community building?

Modern Western civilization developed a unique belief. It is the strange idea that the best way for young people to be prepared for adult citizenship is to keep young people with young people. This peculiar notion has many names – school, youth programs, youth organizations, etc. These are our ways of segregating young people by age and paying someone to raise them. As a result, our young people have very little experience in community building because they have very little contact with productive adults in productive settings. They enter adulthood largely incompetent in terms of experience with productive citizenship.

The alternative would be to structure our communities so that young people are constantly with adults who are active in their community and productive in their vocations. Unfortunately the examples are few and far between because we have committed ourselves to the idea that age segregation is a good thing. And the more of it the better. “We need more youth programs and youth workers and teachers and child psychologists.”

Much of your work emphasizes the social integration of people who come from different backgrounds. You have said that it is “our obligation to always ensure that the door is open.” How do we ensure that everyone feels equal ownership to the door, or that everyone’s door is equally open? In other words, how can we best address the inevitability of uneven power relations?

When I think about the importance of keeping the “door open,” it doesn’t seem to me to be a question about power. It is a question about hospitality. Hospitality is, classically, the welcoming of a stranger. It is a feeling that you have a relationship with people you don’t know. And, why would you have this kind of a feeling? Because, the stranger has come from over the horizon and knows about places you’ve never been, knows stories you’ve never heard, and tells you poems that light up your life. If your door is closed, you live an arid life. So, a good life depends on an open door. I suppose you could say that a good life depends upon whether you have the power to welcome people.

What was the most powerful experience in building community in which you were personally invested?

I left Ohio and went to Northwestern University in 1949. At that time eighty percent of all the students there belonged to fraternities and sororities. The goal of these Greek organizations was to “pledge” people who were like themselves. I can remember hearing a young woman in a sorority say of another woman, “She just isn’t a Pi Phi type of girl.” Their understanding of community was assurance of similarity and like-mindedness. They seemed the most boring people in the world to me and I despaired of living their way. Shortly after I arrived as a freshman, the University opened an International House, primarily for students from other countries. I had the good fortune of being admitted to that House. There, every relationship was the discovery of a person who had come from over the horizon and knew places I had never known, told me stories I had never heard, and taught me magical poems. I’m not sure I learned much in my classes, but I know that our House was the most powerful learning and community building experience of my life.