Circling, Assumptions, and Reflections

Without any prior exposure to circling, I attended an online workshop. According to the invitation, this is what circling is about:

Circling is a relational practice with an aim to share what is arising in our present experience with each other. People report that circling leads to experiencing connection and presence with others, and trusting intuitions more deeply.

If that leaves you confused, you could count me in. So let me tell you how I experienced some of it.

For the first part of the workshop, we went into pairs to “share what is arising in our present experience with each other” – answering the question “how am I experiencing your experience right now?” and checking in whether this was correct. To understand how that is even possible, think of interacting with babies.  You stick your tongue out and the baby sticks their tongue out.  You smile, the baby smiles (hopefully).

I believe the jury is out on what exactly is going on inside the baby’s brain at that moment. Does the baby copy your face consciously, or do the mirror neurons signal to the motor neurons to tell the muscles to contract and the baby feels this contraction from the inside – connecting in their memory that smiling feels good and sticking out your tongue feels … silly/ cold around the tongue/ wet on the lips…?

The baby’s brain connects gradually that when I feel safe with dad, he looks this way – no, not necessarily with the tongue out – but when he looks like that, wail, I don’t feel safe. And then it generalizes to other people.

This mirror neuron trick lives in adults as well, and although we might not consciously notice any change on the other person’s face, our brain does an amazing job picking up subtle shifts all the time.  Our mirror neurons tell our motor neurons to pretend to contract in the same way as the other persons’ muscles contract.  This way we may pick up a sensation that the other person is sad or angry or calm or not really here without being able to pinpoint exactly what that is based on.  We call that sense intuition.

Notice, that this intuitive translation of another person’s facial micro-expressions goes through the filter that is your own baby-brain.

Imagine a baby that has grown up with overly Botoxed parents.  No facial expressions ever.  If that was your childhood, your brain wouldn’t be able to translate a smile into a feeling of safety or a frown into a feeling of slight alert.

Facial expressions would more likely overwhelm you because you are not used to them.  Now imagine instead that you have grown up in a family where eager debates often took place – with lots of thinking, questioning, and reasoning.  In this context frowning may be associated with contemplating – not necessarily giving cause for alarm.

In the “how am I experiencing your experience right now?” exercise, we spent some time in silence to feel what signals we were picking up from the other person’s expression, body language, and energy.  Then one person said how they translated what they experienced into an assumption about how the other person felt in those moments and checked if that was true.  And then the other person did the same.

I loved this exercise.

If you have read some of my other articles, you will know that I can talk ad nauseam about checking assumptions.  And here was an exercise where we could “actively observe” how we make some of these assumptions.  Obviously, we can’t observe what the subconscious is doing, but this is about as close as it comes.

Let me step out of the workshop to illustrate with a couple of real-life experiences:

Some years back my mother was operated on for cataracts where the eye lenses gradually have become milky.  For a long while after, her eyes had to get used to getting much more light in through her new clear lenses, and consequently her pupils were very tiny most of the time.

We don’t have any conscious control over our iris muscles.  Like a camera lens, darkness makes the pupils expand and light makes them contract.  But if we see something we like, they also expand.  If we don’t like what we see, they contract.  Consequently, mom’s small pupils signaled hostility all the time.  It took me a little time to figure out what was going on, but only because I knew both this about pupils and about mom’s operation – and was surprised that she would be hostile.  Meanwhile, other people behaved aggressively towards her without knowing why – or rationalizing that it was because of something she did.

Imagine they had reflected on why they felt the need to defend themselves.  That they had said “I experience you as rather hostile towards me” and the assumption could have been debunked.  But we don’t normally talk like that – outside of workshops.

The other example is on myself.  I wear glasses when I am on the computer most of the day, and they tend to ever so slowly slide down my nose.  That means that the distance from the upper rim of my glasses and my eyebrows increases.  Unless I watch out, I look as if I have raised my eyebrows.

How do you feel when a person raises their eyebrows at you?  Yeah, me too.  Stupid b…..  Please forgive my apparent arrogance.  (And no, my partner in the circling workshop didn’t pick that up, but I was attending Friendship Bench the other day and kept pushing my glasses back up…)

Rather than taking you through the rest of the exercises, I want to point out a couple of observations related to this micro-expression mirror-neuron dance.

Our workshop was on Zoom with breakout rooms.  It stands to reason that with muscle movements that are so fast that we are not consciously aware of the changes, it makes a difference whether we are sitting across from one another or receiving a picture through a screen.  Screen refresh rates and up-and-download speeds can be too slow to transmit these ultrafast changes.

That tells us that we should be even more careful with our assumptions when we meet people through an electronic medium.  Our intuition is more likely to be off from lack of data than if we meet in person.

If you have more than one device and one has a camera, try filming yourself when you are scrolling your phone or whatever you do with your devices.  If somebody talks to you, does your expression change in a way that makes that interaction a positive or negative experience from a micro and macro expression point of view?

With their minds deeply buried in a computer, many parents can be caught saying “that is exciting” in a totally flat manner that has nothing to do with excitement.  Don’t be that parent.  Children and particularly babies watch adults all the time and their brains build connections using the information they take in.  If young people are not very good at matching feelings and expressions and have a hard time reading other people, it could be that we adults – with TV, home computers, and now handheld devices to distract us – have fed this non-artificial intelligence, our babies’ brains, some very confusing data sets to learn from.

(The rest of us don’t like being ignored either, even if our brains probably are not going to rewire.)

Finally, Meta, Facebook’s new holding company, has introduced the Metaverse: spaces incl. meeting rooms where not you but your avatar meets with other people’s avatars: cute cartoon characters that can look enough like you to identify who you are – or not – but which have no micro-expressions.

Who knows if your avatar even mimics the way you do or only the way software engineers have built/trained them to mimic at a certain tone of voice or use of words?  Will that be culturally accurate outside Menlo Park, CA?  Who knows?  If you choose that your avatar is a giraffe, all bets are off.  And could/might software engineers actively manipulate micro-expressions to create specific emotional outcomes?

It will only take one generation of non-emoting or fake-emoting people/avatars to destroy the propensity for empathy our species has built up over millennia because we can no longer intuit others’ emotional states.  And once it is gone, it’s gone.  We can’t teach our children what we haven’t learned.

If my words make you experience me as skeptical bordering on hostile towards this avatar experiment on the human race, your assumptions are correct.

Perhaps circling – again and without avatars – becomes a defense strategy in the Metawild West.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Charlotte, I love this. I would ask if maybe we are over thinking what we do. Perhaps to understand, then do we really need to understand. When I retired, I moved out to the county and I find that the birds, deer, forest and people tend to accept that you are just you and don’t need to understand. That being said I too love everything you write.

    • Larry, I love the innocence you describe. Earlier today a post linked thoughts and words together, and I commented that the infant with no language then implicitly should have no thoughts, only feelings and senses.
      The birds, deer, and forest probably don’t need to understand – and not to understand is both a gift and a curse. And people? If we understand another’s perspetive, we can accept a lot of weird behaviors.
      For me, if I think I understand – and I may be totally off with my understanding – but in the sense-making I feel I can park quite a lot and move on from whatever is bugging me. Less judgement, it makes sense to the other and I can run with that.

  2. Charlotte,
    I just want to share that i absolutely love everything you write.
    This right here is one of the reasons why:
    “If my words make you experience me as skeptical bordering on hostile towards this avatar experiment on the human race, your assumptions are correct.”
    Your essays are smart, thought provoking, heart opening, expanded positioning and always with a beautiful and authentic sense of humor. Thank you for being you.. and making me think deeper and higher.

    • Thank you for your willingness to think deeper and higher with me, Carolyn, while seeming to understand that using humor also leaves room for stories none of us have thought about but that might change assumptions and add reflections.