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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Apr-06


Wednesday 12-Apr-06

The talking stick

There is an old Native American custom of talking. And when I mean talking I don't mean idle chatter or thoughtless diatribes, but real talking, which of course means lots of listening. The basic principle is of a session that goes on for as long as is needed, in which those who need to talk, talk, and others listen, respectfully and reflectively. And where necessary, there may be long silences as people think about what has been said.

It is a principle that is alien to many people now, as we often seem to talk without listening, and cut off discussion before any conclusion has been reached. Yet it is a most powerful too.

I used this principle this week when there was tension in my family and it seemed like a good long talk was needed -- and even more listening. This is the rules of the method that we used, that I derived from what I know of Native American methods:

  1. There is a 'talking stick', which can be any convenient thing that a person can pick up and hold. We used a metal lighter for a gas fire. It was to hand and had no association with any one person.
  2. The session starts with the talking stick placed on the floor (or table) with everyone sitting comfortably around it. Some of us sat on the floor, others on chairs and cushions.
  3. These rules are explained and everyone agrees to abide by them. Nobody who rejects the rules can take part.
  4. One person picks up the talking stick. When they are holding the stick, they can talk for as long as they like, or even hold a silence for a while.
  5. When one person is holding the stick and talking, everyone else listen attentively and without judgement, knowing that what is said is the person who is talking's truth. Even if a listener disagrees, they must not show irritation, annoyance, contempt or any other discouragement.
  6. When the talker has stopped, they place the talking stick on the floor (not handing it to anyone else).
  7. The session continues until nobody else has anything left to say, which is signalled by a noticable period when nobody picks up the stick. One person checks that everyone is done before the session ends with thanks all around.

It seems simple, but in practice this is a very powerful method of creating deep communication. The session was very successful for us. People who had been silent about important matters spoke about them. People who had been frustrated got to air their views. People who wanted to make peace were able to have their say. And everyone followed the rules.

There is a old admonition that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth -- and we should use them in this proportion. Talking stick sessions allow us to practice this. It lets us be heard and, often more importantly, it helps us to truly hear others who we have inadvertently been ignoring.

Our session helped the family become closer again when some had been drifting apart. We agreed that in future anyone can call another session at any time they like. I do hope they do.

Your comments

Amen. Our family used this communication tool at our last family reunion. We are Cherokee in blood, and wanted to bring some of the old ways back. It was cathartic for some, eye-opening for others, and just a great way for our talkative family to let others speak who are not always heard.

-- Nichole Summers

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