CIRCLES OF SISTERHOOD by Tami Steckler
A duo helps women glow, grow and build community
Women like to gather. Not in the traditional hunter-gatherer paradigm, but gather together to discuss books, play games, or solve the world’s problems. They are doers, sharers, fixers, and thinkers – responding to a multitude of changes with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. And yet when it comes to taking time to consider their own lives, women are likely to place their needs and desires on the back burner.
So, a few years ago, when Rebecca Bascio, a life-long educator, and Tammy Palazzo, a seasoned coach and consultant focusing on women in the workplace, sat down over a meal to discuss their lives, the conversation was effortless. And as kismet would have it, by the end of the meal a spark had been lit and the idea for You: Intentionally Designed was born. They knew whether in transition or searching for a much-needed refresh, women often rely on each other to get through challenging times. The concept was to provide a structured and facilitated circle setting to encourage women to support one another through self-reflection, and the actualization of their desired, not expected, lives. They decided to test their theory and began to construct a group.
When Rebecca approached me about joining a pilot circle, I balked. I was not a joiner, and this type of group was not something I sought out. But, nevertheless, I agreed – partly because she plied me with ramen, but also because the topic of transition resonated with me. In my early 60s, empty-nested after raising children for 40 years, and partnered for 32, I was looking for something to marry my deep-seated desire to support families and children with my need for flexibility and less responsibility. I thought that joining the group would assist with thinking through my options. And (spoiler alert!) it did. But in the end, it gave me so much more. Participant Mary Morgan’s sentiment echoes my own: “You: Intentionally Designed entered my life at a time I was bereft of solid introspection and female support and conversation.”
They developed You: Intentionally Designed to challenge societal values, to create a space that helps women shed roles, expectations, and ideals that no longer work, and to choose what comes next. These partners always knew the focus would be on intention. “As women we are not always making choices for ourselves. We wanted to create a space where women can choose, ‘This is who I want to be; I want to intentionally design my life,’” explains Palazzo. “Women should be making choices always and owning those choices, not just doing the right thing but doing the things that create the life they want. Intentions in circle allow the participant to stay true to the circle and who they are in it. It is empowering to be intentional.”
As they planned their pilot groups, Bascio and Palazzo were conscious of the fact they are not therapists. But they had attended a circle retreat, and it was eye-opening. It confirmed for them that there is much to be gained through directed conversation, and reinforced their belief that we have something akin to superpowers inside of us. They also realized that while they did not have all life’s answers and couldn’t solve everyone’s problems, they had valuable assets to offer – their own experiences, their professional training, their mutual ability to create and lead meaningful conversations and, most importantly, their shared belief in the power of women in dialogue. As Palazzo explains, “We are not trying to design someone’s life, but we can help to draw up a blueprint to guide them where they want to go.” Adds Bascio, “We can help participants to customize their own experience. Asking the right questions is the key to uncorking the answers for others.”
Both women see themselves as intuitive, knowing how to listen for growth opportunity and reflecting it back to the group members. They feel it is important to “meet people where they are” and see the “circle as a container” keeping the conversation on track with the stated intention.
Palazzo sees their role as “protectors of the space.” Bascio adds, “One of the most critical elements of beginning groups to do this work is starting with a lighter touch, allowing people to get to a place where they feel safe and where confidentiality is honored completely.”
When my group began, on a cool evening at Bascio’s home, it was clear from the outset that the duo were experienced facilitators. They quickly tapped into the nervous energy in the room as they allowed each person the space to explain her presence in the circle. As guiders they gently moved us forward, without ever making themselves the focus of the conversation. It was hard work, but Palazzo and Bascio carefully tended to the issues that were raised in response to their thoughtful prompts, and we began examining how our real lives measured up to the lives we imagined for ourselves. As group member Deb Colon says, “Joining this group was a great decision. I went into the group thinking it would just be women chatting. Boy, was I wrong! The way Rebecca and Tammy interact and facilitate makes you feel comfortable…the prompts and topics they choose are thoughtful and relevant. They put in a lot of work, and it shows.”
As our meetings continued, the miracle of connection became evident. Palazzo and Bascio crafted the conversation so that we were able to share our insecurities, perceived mistakes, and disquieting fears openly and without fear of judgment. Emotions flowed unobstructed as woman after woman responded to the prompts set forth. In discussing how to handle the intensity, Bascio explains that “at times when Oprah was interviewing during an emotional segment, the camera would cut to her, and tears would be streaming down her face. If I am listening to someone else share [their emotions], my job is to hold space for that person, and not make it about my emotions.” According to Palazzo it is “mission-critical to remain engaged but detached. The only time we share is to offer reflection and move conversation forward.”
With their guidance, we got better at sharing, better at connecting the dots in our own lives and helping our circle partners to connect theirs. We gained more confidence individually but also as a unit, and the conversation went deeper until it seemed we had broken down almost every wall that existed during our first cautious meeting. It was clear with the expertise of Bascio and Palazzo we had created a tightly knit web of friendship, support, and compassion. Group member Christine Lynch says it best: “I’m all about women lifting women up and supporting one another. You: Intentionally Designed is a testament to that process. I was able to come to terms with a life experience that had more meaning and impact than I understood. I also learned that I could effectuate change and create a different outcome for myself.” Morgan felt deeply supported, saying, “It was an uplifting, enlightening and provocative experience. It was a great gift to myself.”
From Bascio and Palazzo’s perspective, our circle work helped them to solidify their plans. They were able to see the arc more clearly and improve their curriculum and content. They have been working on a more substantive intake process, focused on what commonalities will make a group gel, careful to ensure participants have similar life experiences, knowing that creating connection also creates community. Ready to grow, Bascio and Palazzo have added a corporate partner to develop a more substantial program and will be focusing on bringing their business into the workplace as well.
These friends and partners know of a certainty that creating circles of women works, and with their guidance and facilitation, magic can and does happen for the participants, but also for them.
As Palazzo notes, “The group changed me. I came into it clinically to focus on the work at hand. But when people share their stories, we can’t help but be moved and connect to them. It allowed me to experience a group of women as I never had before.” She realized it was possible to coach, listen and grow without speaking. Sharing is that powerful. For Bascio, the group confirmed for her that stories matter. She was honored by the trust in the group and reflected that it “made her realize who she is and who she puts out to the world, and constantly reminded her she is enough.”
For me, I came to the group insisting I wanted to limit my responsibility for others. By the end, I realized helping others is a core value for me and I could still honor those values while retaining some flexibility and space by embarking on a new career path. But most importantly, and surprisingly, circling with these women was something I came to cherish. And while Rebecca and the ramen drew me in, it’s the magic of that circle that made me stay. As Colon so aptly stated, “I hated having to break for the summer.” The truth is, we all did.
Tami Steckler traded her empty nest for a circle of women and found out, after 63 years, that she might be a joiner after all.