Interrelationship of Circle-Triangle-Square

Many people are so frustrated working within hierarchy and bureaucracy that when they are introduced to beautiful engagement processes like World Cafe, Circle Practice and Open Space, a new love affair begins.  These methodologies are powerful in re-igniting passion, hearing every voice, creating mindful and thoughtful conversational spaces that take individuals and groups into new territory.

The love affair becomes a bit jaded when people begin to say, “Conversation is great, but what about doing something?  Where is the action in these methods?  Where does decision making rest?”  As if creating meaningful and relevant conversational space and decision making or action are mutually exclusive.  In many cases though, people haven’t figured out how to make them work well together.  It is not either/or.  It is and. What is the leadership and understanding necessary to find the balance that invites both broad based engagement and effective decision making leading to wise action and movement on initiatives, especially social change initiatives inside organizations and systems?  What does it take to truly shift the shape of the world we live and work in?

Recent conversation with with Toke Moeller and Bob Wing in Brazil has sparked my curiosity and reflection on the relationship between the circle, triangle and square that we often reference in the Art of Hosting.

The circle represents the social technologies that engage people in deeper, more inclusive ways, tapping into human longing for connection and meaning.  Circle is an ancient and universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, the goddess, and feminine power. It represents the sacred.

The triangle represents  hierarchy and structure within which so much work happens and decision making takes place. When the triangle points upwards, it symbolizes fire, male power and the masculine archetype.  The energy of doing and of action.

The square represents the physical world in contrast to the sacred.  In relationship with the circle and triangle, the square represents new forms of governance, stewardship or strategic thinking partnerships.

Power of Circle-Triangle-Square Interrelationships

Much of the intention behind or underneath circle or engagement strategies is to share leadership and responsibility more broadly.  We are not always clear on what that means. Sharing it doesn’t mean foregoing it as sometimes happens as people begin to experiment and play with engagement strategies.  A point is often reached where things feel stalled because we are not always clear where decision making fits or how to do it well.

Sometimes change processes fail because leaders are not clear on how decisions will be made in conjunction with engagement methodologies. They then “take back” decision making which seems to disempower the move toward shared leadership and shared responsibility.

Yet, very little gets done without decisions being made.  Clarity around decision making allows for stronger relationships and more powerful work processes.  Understanding the need for and how the circle and the triangle work together creates the space for more intentionality in processes and relationships.

There is not just one form of decision making that should always be used.  Sometimes consensus decision making is the most appropriate decision mechanism.  Other times decision making will be vested in an individual or a team that sits elsewhere in the organizational structure.  The lack of clarity around who makes what decisions when and how information flows is more likely to lead to problems more than the type of decision making structure.  The degree of trust inside of the relationships also has an impact.  In organizations or systems where the trust is high, decisions are trusted and respected no matter who makes them.  In organizations or systems where the trust is low, of course decisions are questioned and sometimes disrespected.  Quality of relationship can be improved through the circle, thus supporting the triangle better.  Clear decision making processes improve quality of relationship.

The circle and triangle  are nested inside of the square.  If the square is equated to stewarding or governance, the role of the square is about holding space and perspective from a strategic, bigger picture point of view.  Not so active in the decision making structures or in the conversational space but bringing the awareness of deeper patterns that relate to or underly any given process, initiative or movement, providing insight and perspective that then feeds back into the engagement (circle) and decision making (triangle) processes.

The danger lies not in any of these specific shapes. It is in becoming enamoured with any one of them to the exclusion of the others or disenchanted with one to the point of not wanting to engage it at all.  As I consider the work in front of me now, I will bring this deeper curiousity about the interrelationship between the circle, triangle and square into my process and coaching considerations, particularly as it relates to new leadership competencies required in a rapidly changing world.

18 thoughts on “Interrelationship of Circle-Triangle-Square

  1. Kathy,

    That must have been a very interesting conversation. There are many interesting conversations about circle/square/triangle in the Shinto tradition (and aikido, of course). Here is one:
    I remember the first time I joined a conversation about this was actually in Halifax during ALIA. 😉

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Augusto, so many interesting conversations while I was in Brazil – and many visited more than once – like the relationship of the square to stewarding. I have more reflections to come. This is just the beginning.

  3. Hi Kathy – this is very helpful thinking and illuminating. I feel it as an invitation to explore the square, maybe the least understood part of the paradigm.

    A couple of weeks ago I posted a whole piece on the AoH list about the 5th paradigm, it was a genuine attempt to show how we are actually working with the practice of the 5th paradigm in reality, Yet I fear somehow it caused some disturbance in the field and actually some disturbance in me, I felt like maybe Id spoken out of turn or spoken taboo ( for those who love circle ). And yet it also called forth some beautiful clarity about governance and stewardship even of the AoH network itself. Im very curious about this whole area of learning – particularly about the dance between all 3 as I think they can become polarised and the square gets lots

    Thank you so much for this, keep us posted as you continue to talk and sense and Ill do the same Linda x

  4. Hello, Kathy – This is precious work that you are doing, articulating your learning and musing for the rest of us to get our teeth into.
    My deepest experience lies in the organisational context, seeking to introduce participatory engagement processes into a hierarchical bureaucracy. From that perspective, it is not about a difference in forms, as it is about a difference in paradigms. There’s a lot of crusading and attempts to convince the ‘old school’ that participatory ways are the answer, on one side, and lot of resistance, incomprehension and suspicion (this is some kind of sect) on the other.
    When we are working in complexity, a governance system needs to look like a living system. Decisions don’t so much get taken as they take themselves, arising as collective clarity emerges and a body on the rim of the circle feels called to take action on behalf of the whole. We’re absolutely not there yet in our way of thinking about organisations; we still think too highly of the human capacity to ‘design’ solutions. My own glimmering dawning of understanding, such as it is, lies in *not* making the distinction that you draw, Kathy, in contrasting the physical world to the sacred. We are part of the physical realm, that is imbued with and inseparable from the sacred. Where else could the sacred reside, other than in matter?
    I have been experimenting with this for a while, now, and noticing that wherever I take an attitude of participating in the sacred kosmos – including in the corridors of the European Commission – things happen differently. There are others of us working there who are also discovering this – particularly women, at the moment.
    When there’s a need to take focused, collective action, it can be useful to be very specific about who plays which role, and what each role is accountable for, and how far that accountability stretches before it needs to return to consult the whole. The organisational practice of Holacracy is very effective in this, with its ‘integrative decision-making’ process. But the most important practice is to learn how to collectively sense into how the world is responding to our actions, and whether our sense of purpose is really aligned with the sacred core of reality. That, and how to lay our egos at the door and sit at the rim of the circle with only the interests of the whole at heart.

  5. Linda, where can I find that piece on the 5th paradigm? I missed it somewhere along the way and would like to take a look. The 5th paradigm is something I kind of understand but don’t completely get yet even though I was witness to some of the early conversations about it. I’m waiting for inspired learning to show up in me. It is also the dance that intrigues me and where the greatest learning takes place.

    Helen, thank you for pointing out the “false” distinction about sacred and physical that I made in the descriptions of the circle and the square. I am well aware that we are in time that is asking us to understand the sacred in the physical and the physical in the sacred. There are only distinctions when we make them. Some of the great opportunity that exists now is in understanding just how much of who we are stems for the sacred, non-physical or subtle realms and there are growing numbers of us waking up to the understanding we walk both worlds at the same time. I like the framing you use of walking the sacred kosmos no matter where you are. Ho to that.

    I realize also that some of the practice we are growing with hosting is around recognizing the decisions as they emerge. I’m seeing it more and more, especially as we grow our capacity to sense into what is needed and wanted in any given group or situation. If I think back to my own hosting capacity in 2005 when I first came upon Art of Hosting and my hosting capacity now, the host team dynamics I attracted then and attract now, there is no question that a deepening of capacity is showing up in individuals and in teams. Maybe naming the clarity – whoever sees it – so we can all see it is increasingly important. Not just that, but naming the energetic threads that show up – supportive and unsupportive – is also important. More writing soon about lessons from the field – lessons from the stewarding gathering in Brazil.

    Thank you Linda and Helen for beautiful reflections here, sparking my own deeper learning even more. Hugs, Kathy

  6. Me too, I missed the part that Linda was referring to!
    And I would be very, very interested how you integrate all this with what I know so far of the 5th paradigm… thinking how Tim explains it in one of the videos on the AoH Ning. Because, I have understood the square differently… so I hope we get to some collective, shared understanding that can then flow into the whole of our network.

  7. Hello everyone,

    Oh… that made me think. 😉

    On Helen’s comment — sometimes I feel the “new school” community that we are part of rely on being progressive to make its point. I don’t think it’s about convincing the old to evolve to what “the world is calling”. I think it’s time to drop our progressiveness so more people will explore participation for the richness and results it has to offer. It can only be resistance if there’s coerciveness.

    I do agree that we think we can design pretty much everything – we are an arrogant species – but I also think that a governance system can be designed to serve a purpose and even if it’s a system embedded in a/some living system, it’s not one – it’s just a collective agreement between people.

    I was a big fan of ‘tending to’ [to have the care of; watch over; look after] as oppose to the ’emerging’ [being born; coming to being] that got fancy. We don’t want decisions to be born, we want to care for the community – that’s why we decide stuff. Between ‘decision-making’ and ‘decision-happening’ there must be a decision-growing that comes out of tending to what we want to conserve in the system so it can serve our community.

    I haven’t read Linda’s piece, but I can hear the fuss around “do not touch my circle”. That might be the same resistance we can see in any organisational system. Will look for the piece myself.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Big hug,


  8. I want to add one thing: if we talk about circle – triangle – square and governance in a self-organising network or in a large scale change program, then the role of the core-team (again a circle I guess) needs to clear to all and needs to be included in this description.

  9. I’m appreciating this exchange. Thank you friends. My own thinking about this interrelationship has only just begun. Willing and curious to dive deeper into this and now hold it in my awareness more fully as I enter into the next work I do and conversations I have. Keep it flowing. A bow to the conversation.

  10. Oops, hit the button too soon!

    Feeling some, what, tension? disagreement? with some of your framing here.

    I think this begins with some attachment to the “old” definition of circle/triangle/square as I’ve used them — council/creative action/hierarchy. I like the straightforwardness of this and it has seemed very useful in many situations.

    I also have some resistance to the ways you are characterizing the triangle: “The triangle represents hierarchy and structure within which so much work happens and decision making takes place. When the triangle points upwards, it symbolizes fire, male power and the masculine archetype. The energy of doing and of action.” Perhaps it is important to distinguish between “decision happening” or “discernment” which for me is a function of circle/council and differs from “decision making” which often does feel masculine. But for me a triangle is balanced — and one of the strongest geometric forms and I have some resistance to characterizing it as representing hierarchy or characterizing it as inherently masculine.

    I think overall, you’ve used three universal symbols to articulate some different principles than the original circle/triangle/square equation. Nothing wrong with that — but it is a little confusing to me to have them in the same space.

    Just musing…

    With love,


  11. Hey Bob,

    I often have more opportunity to reflect on concepts before I write about them so I’m appreciating this exchange greatly. It is helping me understand my own gaps in understanding and fleshing out my own musings more. I have a feeling I’ll post more on this at some later date. It is actually stewarding that has my attention the most and how that fits with the notion of the square. I have some reflections from the Brazilian field that I’m in the process of writing about and hope to publish in a few days. I like your reflections here. Thank you.

    • Hmmm, as I understand it from the teaching on organisational paradigms, the square really does represent ‘bureaucracy’ – complicated, boxlike organisation structures that provide stability and have organisation charts. They are considered good for running things when things get complicated. The idea of putting the square around the triangle around the circle might have seemed like a neat trick, but I think it’s misleading. I would rather see stewardship represented as a bigger circle, embracing all the other forms and the whole field.

  12. Oh, Augusto – I also love what you write about ‘decision-growing’, and about having clarity about what we are caring for and caring about. I think that’s part of the crisis of the organisation where I work: people have forgotten the purpose of their work, forgotten to really plug back in to what they are caring for and why they care about that. Often when I ask that question, they find that they don’t actually care about what they are working for any more. It’s lost all meaning… or has somehow ended up twisted and in the heart of the evil empire. Then there’s a lot of agonising because you either have to walk out (scary for security reasons) or be courageous and speak truth to a big system and try to realign things on what really matters (scary for egoic reasons in a system where the parent-child power game unconsciously rules).

  13. I am so interested in this conversation because of an image that has fascinated me since I first saw it years ago in the attic of the old Friends Meeting House in Portland Maine. As the building was about to be renovated I came upon something which looked like an old wooden wheel. I learned that it was the pulley which had been used back in the late 1700s when men and women worshipped separately: the pulley allowed a wall to be raised and lowered depending on meetings happening separately or together.

    What really drew me to this wheel was that it was round but its inner form was a square and triangles with another small circle which was the hub. I photographed it, and have drawn it at various times: it is the base of a model I once called “out of the box church”.

    I tend toward systemic thinking, always wanting to get ‘the big picture’, and this wheel with its circles, triangles and square has been one of those images which has seemed whole and useful.

    How interesting to see this reflection coming out of AOH conversation. Thank you, and I’ll see if I can share a visual representation of this wheel….

    • Peggy, I’m intrigued by the image you’ve painted here. Thanks. Helen, thanks for more clarification on the square. I’m understanding some things better now and more curious about where stewarding sits – especially with my increased experiences lately related to stewarding.

      • Hi kathy and all – wow this has sparked a lot of interesting ideas and conversation – a HOT topic ……and I changed the design of a retreat I was hosting yesterday as a result of Helens comments on us loosing sight of what we care for – brought this back into the heart of a core team and it was a real energiser and revealer – so thank you for that.

        Here is the piece I was referring to earlier about the actual practice of working with the 5th paradigm and how we were understanding it as it evolves. As i read it again I can see how there are deeper layers that sit beneath this that we haven’t yet begun to work with – The dance between emergence and beauty and structure and a clear decision framework continues to fascinate me

        The 5th organising paradigm is the closest I can come to a model that I have seen that illuminates an organising pattern – circle, triangle, square or bureaucracy,network ( I wonder if there is also a 6th that is the voice of the organisation or the entity itself- is that Holocracy? ) I’ll try and share some ‘hands on experience’ from practicing this within tasting the future and the finance innovation lab, both of which have AoH principles and principles of living wholeness at their very heart.

        You asked – what existing conditions are necessary and does everyone have to be at the same level of consciousness? I’d say People don’t have to be at the same level of consciousness ( we’d have to wait for ever for this) but they do have to share a world view and a resonant tone or way of working. Not simply a purpose but a way of working towards fulfilling that purpose maybe?

        Our two core teams are like the inner circles holding strategic stewardship and within the core there are different constellations ( triangles ) that go to work on different aspects like evaluation, innovation, learning, funding, connecting, illuminating, hosting, scaling up. These constellations come together and weave other people in from time to time, sometimes short lived and sometimes ongoing . Some of us work on finance and others on food, some people cross over both areas, some hold this as their main work, some are supporters and advisors and it is constantly moving, open and flexible.

        Our core team is expanding in tasting the future and we are paying careful attention to how we do this. We do feel a strong protection and some of that has come about because we have been really challenged on our basics – and thank goodness for challenges coz they make us stronger. We started off with a wider stewardship group of people who were invited to hold the core with us but ran into difficulties as we didn’t have a common worldview. We learnt to stand up for our approach, thank the people who had been involved and let them go. I’ve been learning about spiral dynamics and think maybe it has much to offer us here about moving from green ( everyone is equal and all can participate ) to yellow and turquoise ( a more chaordic state of consciousness that is systemic, functional and collaborative – and where different people bring their strengths to a learning ecology) so do we have to draw on different disciplines to be effective ? YES absolutely. I draw on everything I’ve got all the time!

        The whole core come together regularly to sense into what is happening and the way ahead. This is both emergent and planned. Sometimes decisions are made by smaller groups, trust and communication is really important here, as is each of us feeling and sensing our gifts in the ecology. Sometimes its really slow as we await emergence to show herself. We have surfaced principles of working and share world views that set an underlying tone for how we work. We are continually engaging with our core purpose, the need and the context so we can sense the next wise step forward. We put time into our own depth learning and harvesting and sense making. We also have a laugh together ( and a cry ) and usually good food is involved !

        Around the core is another circle of what we call family and friends. These are people who are resonant both with the work and with the way we work, using a living systems approach, seeing things as complex, interconnected and messy and working with the whole as well as the parts. We are still building relationship and capacity here and working with these groups to blend and expand

        The square or bureaucracy comes in the form of the host organisations, wwf and institute for chartered accountants – where the callers also live. Sometimes this square drives us mad as they often want answers to questions that have no answer ( and that’s part of our principles its Ok to not know ! ) ……..but actually it has also been really helpful ( as are funders ) in requiring us to be more rigourous about things like evaluating outcomes and developing theories of change. Acoounting for where the money goes that sort of thing

        Finally the network , the heart and soul of this whole thing. The people who engage, ask questions, pursue dreams and inquiries, come together and share. Our organising pattern here is to host regular and very diverse activities and spaces for people to meet and innovate, learn together, that sort of thing . More people are stepping into hosting themselves, calling their own spaces and projects and some are stepping into hosting the whole with us

      • Linda, this is beautifully rich. Thank you. It is growing my understanding of what we mean by the 5th paradigm which I’ve always kind of gotten intuitively but not so much in specific examples. Glad you shared it here in this exchange.

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