I could tell a whole long story about a recent family team meeting I facilitated, and what led up to my realizing that we really needed to use a talking stick.
What was going on: the family in question could not listen, could not take in information, and when the difficult feedback began to be shared, emotions flared; people wouldn’t let others speak, and talked over them, monopolizing the meeting, telling long stories and making many justifications for behavior; the tears and some emotions and yelling started; we had to take a couple of breaks; and then since it was clear that we were all getting emotionally worn out, we rescheduled to finish the meeting a week later.
In the intervening week it occurred to me that we needed to use a talking stick for the next meeting. Usually I don’t use this facilitation tool; usually we don’t need it. With this meeting, this family, it seemed we needed it.
The way our current western culture is organized, it’s seen as “cool” to not listen to other people. It’s “cool” to be able to wield a fast and mighty put-down. It’s “cool” to be too busy, too important, too smart or too wealthy to really be present in the moment. It’s “cool” to be able to shout down, out-think, and super-strategize while others have the group’s attention. This is competitive communication, and it’s not really communication at all. It’s noise. It’s Busy Speaking.
It’s an old Native tradition to use the Talking Stick. There are only a few rules: one person speaks at a time; the person who holds the talking stick “has the floor” and can speak, and everyone else listens and is quiet and respectful of the speaker; and the one who holds the talking stick must use it respectfully, too — in other words, they must be respectful of the group, as well. In some talking circle meetings there’s a designated timekeeper; if the timekeeper feels that the person speaking has gone on too long, they notify the whole group by an agreed-on method, and the talking stick is passed to the next one in the circle.
Using the Talking Stick to facilitate communication in a group setting is so helpful in so many ways.
- In this way, the ones who usually do a lot of talking still get a chance to share, and they may have to monitor their time and share appropriately, or they may get their speaking time cut short.
- Those who are usually quiet in meetings and “keep to themselves” at least get an opportunity to speak and to share fully without being interrupted.
I’ve often been one of these who needs the time and the quiet space to go into the depths of me and find out what it is I really have to say. In Talking Stick meetings there is the time and the space for that, and I always come away from the meetings having learned something new about myself. I get the “I didn’t know I thought that until I said that!” feeling so often, in these situations.
Often, as the stick goes from one person to the next in a circle, one person may ask a question, or raise a point, and if it were just the two of us in a dialogue, we’d be hashing things out between the two of us.
In the Talking Stick meeting, someone two or three or four people later around the circle may bring up what “I” would have said; and maybe two or three people after that, someone may come up with yet another perspective that sheds light on the question I would have raised. And by the time the stick gets back to me, all of my “yeah, but!”s have been answered, my questions have been all asked and answered, and I’ve received new insights, information and perspectives on the topic at hand.
Not nearly enough.
We’ve even forgotten how to learn to know our neighbors.
I forgot to take my fancy carved wooden talking stick to our meeting at the inpatient treatment center. I looked around the conference room and spotted the perfect thing: the TV remote control. We used that as our Talking Stick.
Did it work? Not perfectly. Our family members still wanted to jump in and defend, like verbal jousters. They kept forgetting the idea that “only the person with the talking stick has the permission to speak.” Habits like this are deeply ingrained.
But it was a beginning, a teaching moment.
Beginning the opening-up process, opening up to letting in “what is true now,” is a major step in personal growth.