The Three Circles Communication Tool

Posted by Emma Reedy, Senior Intensive Staff on December 09, 2016

DBF10AD9 3D8B 435D 99C5 4418F7CF566DThe “3 Circles Exercise” illustrates a communication tool that can be used with any relationship, whether it is between parent and child, partners, friends, or coworkers. It is a template that can aid in clarifying boundaries, mediating conflictual relationships, and managing codependence. In the illustration, there are three different circles, “My Circle,” the “Relationship Circle,” and the “Other’s Circle.” And in each, there are specific responsibilities.

ResizedImage600214 3 Circles

My Circle

In the first circle, your circle, you have the following two responsibilities:

1. Know Your Truth

This means that you need to know who you are, what you want, and what you need. This can take some time, especially for people who struggle with codependency. This might mean spending some time by yourself, outside of the relationship, in order to figure out your beliefs, desires, and/or boundaries; these are your truths. Your truth doesn’t always need to be deep or spiritual, examples of your truth could simply be that you do not like asparagus. Discovering and knowing your “truth” will be a life long pursuit and take consistent work.

2. Keep People Out of Your Circle

This means refusing to allow people to “come into your circle,” and tell you what to do, think, or feel, etc. This might look like removing yourself from conversations, situations or even relationships where the “other” is engaging in controlling behavior or violating your boundaries. For example, if you find yourself in a conversation where another person is trying to change your beliefs or boundaries, you have the right (and responsibility) to leave the room, hang up the phone, or do whatever is necessary to remove yourself from that discussion.

Relationship Circle

You have one responsibility in the relationship circle:

1. Express Your Truth

This circle involves interaction with the “other.” We begin by inviting the other to take a step in the relationship circle, by engaging in a conversation. We then proceed to state our truth. Stating your truth can have many forms, it could be asking for something you need or want, it could be setting a boundary, or it could simply be expressing how you feel about a situation. This can only be done if you have defined your truth in the first circle. Make sure you spend as much time as necessary to define your truth before you engage in the relationship circle.

You may also enter the relationship circle when the other is stating their truth. At times it can be helpful to validate what they have said and return to your circle to spend some time processing how you feel about what they have shared or requested. This allows you to formulate your truth without the presence of the other and helps you avoid falling into codependency behaviors. Then you may be able to return to the relationship circle with clarity, and authenticity when responding to their share, request, boundary, etc.

Other’s Circle

You have one responsibility in this circle:

1. Stay Out of This Circle

A common way we find ourselves in the other’s circle is when we are trying to change how they feel or think. It is not your responsibility to change their behavior, to manipulate, or control how that person is feeling, etc. Many people, rather than making requests and setting boundaries in their relationships, try to change the other person. If we change the other person, that is to get them to feel, want, believe what we feel, want and believe, we will not have to do that hardest thing of all for most of us: set a boundary. An example is that if I can convince my child to go to school or convince my husband to stop drinking, I won’t have to do the difficult work involved in setting a boundary.

We may have set a boundary that was particularly difficult and be worried that the other person is angry with us. We think that if we just explain it differently they will be able to understand and not harbor hard feelings toward us. This is stepping into the other’s circle. We must allow them to have whatever feelings or thoughts they are having without trying to explain, or talk them out of it, even if it feels like they are just misunderstanding.

  • If I just explain it a different way maybe he will understand.
  • We need to agree.
  • I can’t have her think this means I don’t love her.
  • He needs to know I am doing this for his own good.
  • I just want them to feel….

Thoughts like this are red flags signaling that we are getting caught up in trying to control their circle.

Common Violations of the Three Circles

A common violation of the first circle, your circle, is believing that it is someone else’s responsibility to know what is going on inside of it. When we expect people to know how we are feeling, what we want, or what we are uncomfortable with without expressing it, that is abandoning our circle and waiting for someone else to come take care of it.

I shouldn’t have to ask!

Another common violation of the relationship circle is when we take over the whole thing. Stepping two feet inside and not allowing the other to participate in the relationship. Assuming that the other person cannot take care of their circle, or setting boundaries so we must do it for them. Assuming that another person will say yes to our request and then harbor resentment so we refrain from asking them in the first place. These are examples of what it looks like when we take up the whole relationship circle. I have found I have a problem with this one and I have a tool which helps me. When I am concerned that the other cannot take care of their circle, or expects me to do it, I start stating my truth with a reminder, I say, “I want to remind you that you can take care of yourself and say no, or tell me if this is too much but here is my request…” This lets me off the hook for managing their circle and allows me to let them participate in the relationship circle. We keep our children and others small when we take over their circle. We might do things for them without them learning to ask for help.

This tool can be essential in creating new dynamics for healthy relationships. It takes practice when learning to approach our relationships with a mentality of taking care of us, and allowing them to be responsible for their part. Through practice, we can learn to be more graceful as we ask people to step out of our circle. In turn, we can be conscious about not stepping into theirs. Even if we are in a relationship with someone who is not familiar with this tool, we can implement it. Often we are met with a battle or struggle to return to the old dynamics, however, if we remain consistent we will be able to see who in our lives can show up, and have the courage and vulnerability to foster a healthier relationship.


Very astu for a young woman!

Posted by Pat Reedy

This blog post is a terrific help. I am going to reread it everyday until I can make the 3 circles into a habit Thank you for your clarity . I look forward to reading more from you.

Posted by Karen carouso

Thank you so much. I am glad it was helpful. This idea has been helpful to me too and I also try to practice it in all my relationships. (I say practice because it is still something I have yet to master!) Good luck and thank you again for your generous words.

Posted by Emma Reedy

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