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Using a Team Approach to Tackle Large-Scale Hoarding Projects

A look into the Circle Process for dealing with complex hoarding situations.

I am a member of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) and they have various classes you can take towards earning certificates in certain specialty areas. One class in particular that stuck out for me talked about using the Circle Process in helping people who hoard. The Circle Process is a holistic approach that can be used with much success to tackle large-scale hoarding projects that require a team approach.

The Circle Process is a method that has been adopted from many indigenous communities and the belief is that people who are in conflict sit together in a circle with an intention of healing. The circle represents life’s continuation, with no starting point and no end.  Each person in the circle has the support and safety with which to talk about their values, the issues stemming from conflict, and their goals for the work of the circle. 

“The philosophy of circles acknowledges that we are all in need of help and that helping others helps us at the same time.” – Kay Pranis  

There are many elements of the Circle Process that can be helpful in working with persons struggling with hoarding disorder. These are adapted from the work of Kay Pranis:

Ceremony - There should be some kind of mark in time to begin the circle and end the circle. Many times prayer or deep breahing are used to start the process and a verbal recap and affirmation of the efforts of the group to end it.

Often times there is the client, their family, a professional organizer, a mental health professional, possibly clean out crews and volunteers involved in tackling a hoarding situation. It’s important to make sure all the parties check in together at the start of a work session to make sure everyone is on the same page for that day's tasks and to confirm who's doing what, where and when. You could also chant or do a team cheer to get everyone pumped up. At the end of the day, there should be a wrap-up session to assess progress and what the schedule and tasks look like going forward. Hugs and high-fives can be shared for any and all progress made. 

Guidelines - The guidelines are the commitments or promises that each member makes to one another about their conduct in the group. The guidelines define the shared goals of the circle and should include confidentiality. What happens in the circle stays in the circle.

With the team of folks working on a hoarding case, guidelines are a must. It’s important that the hoarder’s viewpoints are heard and respected. It’s also important for his/her family members to share their narrative of the problems. And for the professionals involved whether that be a landlord or building official, to clearly outline any safety measures that need to be taken into account. An agreement must be developed between all stakeholders for the process of addressing the physical clutter safely and systematically.

Facilitator Role - The facilitator is not responsible for solving the problems of the circle or coming up with answers. It is the facilitator's job to hold a safe space for the group and remain a neutral party.

Often times in working on a team to address a hoarding situation, the facilitator role may change. Leadership needs to be flexible and be able to shift as the needs of the circle change. One day the therapist could be the one acting as the mediator and another day it could be the professional organizer. Continuing to support the person struggling with hoarding disorder and being mindful of compassionate self-monitoring is crucial.  

Building Relationships - The relationship between the members is based on trust in that all voices are valuable and should be heard. It's critical to recognize that all roles, experiences, and talents are as important as another's.

When working with folks who hoard, especially ones who are resistant to help, building a positive rapport can be just as important as tackling the physical clutter itself. In building relationships one has to be attentive and notice the feelings of others, listen carefully, and weigh comments before speaking. At times it's helpful to use a talking piece, an object that can be passed between circle members, to determine who's talking at any given time. 

Shared Decision-Making - Decisions in the circle need to be made by consensus. Consensus means that folks can live with the decision and will support its implementation.   

Especially working in a group environment with someone who hoards, consensus decisions should be a priority. This may be hard to do given the number of folks involved, but getting everyone’s buy-in is more effective as it gives power to everyone. When a whole circle feels empowered, everyone wins and can feel more at peace with the situation.  

The circle process is truly a holistic perspective to work with people who hoard. Circles use a multi-disciplinary approach for an open and respectful dialogue and can help to organize the problem so that people can move forward on addressing the issue. It’s a positive way to humanize the conflict among everyone affected. 

How could you use the Circle Process in your work with clients who hoard? 


Circle Keeper’s Handbook: Integrated Conflict Management System by Kay Pranis

Peacemaking Circles, From Crime to Community by K. Pranis, B. Stuart and M. Wedge

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