Edit: I am not an expert on Doom Circles and I don't mean to suggest they are the best way of getting/giving feedback. I meant to post this as a description of a type of activity that won't be right for everyone (and might be quite bad for some people!). I needed a link to the description and couldn't find one online so wrote one.
History of Doom Circles
Doom Circles were first attempted at the Boston Hamming Workshop in April 2015, which was co-taught by Anna Salamon, Michael / Valentine Smith, and Kenzi (Amodei) Ashkie. This was a workshop where the organizers wanted to push people harder than usual - the name “Doom Circle” came from the fact that getting people in a circle to say what’s wrong with each other is, in general, a terrible idea for an activity! But by lampshading the doominess of the activity, and making it super clear what to expect, Doom Circles can avoid some of the emotional fallout of group critique while still getting the benefit. It’s just really valuable to know why things are most likely, or at least seem most likely, to go wrong!
Doom Circle Procedure
The Doom Circle is an activity for a group of people, each of which has at least one thing they’re working on. The thing can be professional, personal, whatever. It can be as broad as simply existing well within a shared community, or as narrow as a specific project. Each person has a turn being the focus of the circle.
When it’s your turn as the focus of the circle, there’s first a disclaimer. It goes something like (to quote Ducan Sabien’s version):
We are gathered here this hour for the Doom of Steve. Steve is a human being who wishes to improve, to be the best possible version of himself, and he has asked us to help him “see the truth” more clearly, to offer perspective where we might be able to see things he does not. The things we have to say may be painful, but it is a pain in the service of a Greater Good. We offer our truths out of love and respect, hoping to see Steve achieve his goals, and he may take our gifts or leave them, as he sees fit.
Then everyone takes turns, as advertised, sharing whatever they think the focal person might fail at their efforts — called, in this case, their “doom”. Everyone has to participate, though offerings can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as 90. Nobody should go on for several minutes, though, and all critiques should be offered in good faith to help the focal person improve. The focal person can only say “thank you” to each doom.
After someone’s turn is complete there’s an outro. Again, to use Duncan’s version:
The Doom of Steve has come, and soon we will send it on its way. Like the calm after a storm, it is fitting that we hold the silence for a few minutes, in acknowledgement of what we've shared. Steve, thank you for hearing what we had to offer.
There are a few additional rules:
- If you have to leave partway, you can’t come back. Ideally, everyone stays the whole time, and so everyone gives everyone else doom.
- People can request aftercare if they expect they’ll need it – for example, they could request hugs, compliments, or a moment of silence for processing; these things happen after the doom, however, rather than in the middle.
- People should make an effort to be as kind as possible, while still honoring the spirit of sharing doom.
Mirror: to help handle the common issue of projection, pass a mirror around when offering dooms. After each person offers their doom to the focal person in this variation, they then look in the mirror and offer the same doom up to themselves to see if it sticks.
Gentle: to help soften the doom experience, follow the doom with things they admire. Also, consider cutting the intro/outro.
Fly-on-the-wall: to help deal with awkwardness around looking participants in the eye while getting brutal feedback, ask the person who's the focus to leave the circle entirely, and sit with their back to the circle, listening in silence as everybody in the circle just talks for 5-10min.
Blindsight: in cases where participants feel they don't know the focus person or their project well enough to provide useful doom, ask participants to share knee-jerk/reflex/stereotype sense of why the focus person will fail, or their first impression "I don't even know if this is even true but if I got this vibe at first glance then probably lots of other people do, too."
Should you try this?
Maybe, or maybe not! The original CFAR alumni workshop included a warning:
"be warned that the nature of this workshop means we may be pushing on folks harder than we do at most other CFAR events, so please only sign up if that sounds like something that a) you want, and b) will be good for you."
It seems useful for facilitators/participants to consider that warning. Doom circles are challenging. People get hurt sometimes. You might not want to do this or do this right now, and that's okay. You shouldn't join a doom circle unless you are okay with having a 20th percentile experience. If you choose not to participate, that doesn't make you "worse." This is a specific kind of activity that some people benefit from and others don't. Also, maybe you're tired, or maybe you had a long week, or maybe you're like "gosh I don't even know the reason why but I just don't feel like this would be good for me right now."
I was looking for a description of Doom Circles for an event I'm working on and couldn't find one, so wrote this up. Thanks, Duncan Sabien and Kenzi (Amodei) Ashkie for sharing the history and quotes! Thanks to Olivia Jimenez, Akash Wasil, and Justis Mills for comments and edits. And thanks to DALL·E for the"painting of four people sitting in a scary circle of doom".
I prefer small groups for this (Thomas Kwa suggested <6 in the comments).