The Companioning Circles© Experience
in One Congregation

By Trudy Deyle, Unitarian Universalist Lay Leader


Two Companioning Circles come together monthly in the Tallahassee, FL Unitarian Universalist congregation. One has gathered for a year and the other for six months, both meeting twice a month for the first three months. These words from two of the Circle members capture the essence of Companioning Circles: being both present to our own feeling life, and connected to the feeling lives of others.

  • At our first meeting, I shared a personal story I had never shared, with anyone, before joining the Companioning Circle. The emotions that were suppressed inside for so many decades poured easily from me in the safe environment of the quietly attentive Companioning Circle. 
  • Not to try to console or fix or even praise the one who talks, but to simply open one’s heart as well as one’s ears, and understandon a cellular levelthat we are all part of one humanity. We are all beings who suffer and rejoice, who yearn to be understood. To really hear another’s story is to broaden and deepen our own experience of being human, to feel CONNECTED in a mysterious and authentic way. All it takes to become a good listener is to begin, we discovered. And now we practice our listening both inside and outside the Circle.

I learned about Companioning Circles from Rev. Roy Reynolds while attending the 2015 Southeast Unitarian Universalist Fall Institute at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center. After conveying the meaning of companioning, Rev. Reynolds invited us to do a brief companioning exercise with another person, each describing a time when we had felt truly heard and just listening in silence to each other. This deep connection with another had a profound impact on me personally. And as the long-time membership chair in our congregation, I was also intrigued by the possibility that Companioning Circles could lead to the deeper connections I think so many are looking for in our congregations.

With the encouragement of our minister, I wrote a sermon and did a service on companioning, entitled “Just Being There With Each Other.” I told about my experience of sharing at The Mountain, described companioning, and suggested the possibility of practicing companioning in our interactions within the congregation—practicing being totally present with each other and listening in silence with the heart. I also presented Rev. Reynolds’ proposal that Companioning Circles be formed in UU congregations—that the Circles would gather regularly for open-ended sharing about whatever group members brought inside of them and felt moved to share: “emotional pain, struggles, tension, loss, longings, realizations, joys, beauties and loves.”

At the end of the service, I asked people to pair off and do the sharing exercise I had done at The Mountain. Almost everyone eagerly jumped into the sharing. As I looked out on the congregation, I could see a number of people wiping away tears as they talked or listened. When the exercise was over, I invited all those interested to try out a short-term Companioning Circle for three months. Eight people were interested. Rev. Reynolds provided me with additional guidance and materials, and we began. At the end of three months, we decided to continue.

In fact, Circle members were so excited about companioning that they proposed doing another Sunday service to share our experiences being in the Circle. Here is a sampling of what was said by Circle members in that service, entitled “Just Listening, A Companioning Circle.”

  • I find that since the Circle started, I am paying more attention to what is going on deep inside me, which is sometimes very different from what is going on at the surface. Moods and activity level come and go on the surface, but what is happening deep inside tends to be there for a lot longer, and often returns if something remains unresolved or I’m faced with new challenges. In my life on the surface, I usually don’t talk much about the chronic health condition that has affected every part of my existence. However, it means a lot to me to be able to talk about it and feel heard within the Circle. 
  • Having lost my last parent and my partner around the same time three years ago, I was conscious of the gap they left in my life. Where was my sounding board for my deeper emotions and questions? Who could I turn to when I needed to talk out something important to me?…This group is the outlet I had been wanting. As we listen to one another’s stories, permission is granted to share my own, without expectation or burden, to simply be heard. 
  • Of all the groups in which I’ve participated, I’ve learned the most from the Companioning Circle. I say this because of the structure of the group. When I think about what I am going to share with the group, I don’t consider what the reaction of the other members might be, so I never censor my planned sharing for fear of being scorned or worse yet having it shared elsewhere by others. 
  • The Companioning Circle is a wonderful opportunity to better learn the art of hearing and being heard…After everyone shares in the atmosphere of rapt attention, we go around again, commenting on our commonalities, differences and insights. It is always amazing to experience the heightened awareness, magic and meaning that emerges from “companioning.” We share our sorrows and aspirations and feel supported and inspired. 
  • Listening to other people’s inner thoughts interrupts my own preoccupations to let in another’s. Often I am surprised by the intensity of my own emotions for us both, and likewise also how lifted up I feel after our sharing.
  • In the Companioning Circle group members listen to members share until they indicate they are finished, without commenting, trying to help, or responding in any way. This format has helped me in dealing with family members. I realize my ingrained response is to offer my opinion of the situation and my solution. It really takes an effort to remain silent; this is good practice.
  • Everyone and every family experiences sorrow and loss at some time. Our Companioning Circle highlighted this reality. You may think you know your neighbor, co-worker, church friend or even best friend forever. But if provided the opportunity to share in an environment that is comforting, calming, compassionate, and confidential, we are likely to learn otherwise. After several sessions we all, I believe, started to feel the power of just listening. It was liberating and enlightening, and so, so, very peaceful.

At the end of that service, we asked the congregation to pair up and share with each other a joy or a sorrow, once again being totally silent while the other shared. We then invited those interested to sign up for a second Companioning Circle. Twelve people expressed interest, with two later deciding not to continue for personal reasons.

While I have facilitated both Circles, others have done so if I am out of town or not feeling well. Several people are willing to start another Circle in the future. One member who serves on our Committee on the Ministry finds his participation so meaningful that he thinks everyone in the congregation should be in a Circle!

Companioning Circles have indeed been a success in Tallahassee. We owe a big thank you to Rev. Reynolds for his vision, and continuing support and guidance.

March 13, 2017