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Are You a Good Conversationalist?

Policy discussions can be passionate and the “mic” held up by a few members of a group. We recently discovered the Power of the Talking Stick to listen to everyone in a circle conversation.

Have you ever sat in a group meeting where one person dominates the conversation for the entire duration of the meeting?  How do you break in?  In her TEDtalk and book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking Susan Cain says that “Any time people come together in a meeting, we’re not necessarily getting the best ideas; we’re just getting the ideas of the best talkers.” Susan Cain adds “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”  

In this article, Mashpee Wampanoag tribal leader and historian Joan Tavares Avant writes about the sacred power of the Talking Stick or Talking Feather used in Native American tribal courts and tribal circle meetings. These tools are used to instill listening and understanding. Only the person holding the Talking Stick or Feather speaks, and everyone else listens respectfully until the speaker is finished. “Passing a Talking Stick with everyone stating their name and reason why they have come, sets the circle for a well-intentioned meeting, even if it is for decision-making, brainstorming or conflict resolution,” writes Tavares Avant. “As a result, at meetings or ceremonies, no one is left out of the process unless they have no comment.”


Native American Talking Stick, Wikimedia Commons

She also points out the dangers of multiple people speaking at once in a meeting: “oftentimes decisions are made on what we think we heard because more than one person may be speaking which can lead to a damaged decision.”

The concept of passing an object to speak and keep order in a group also appears in literature.  If you or your kids were ever assigned to read William Golding’s 1954 classic Lord of the Flies, about a group of British schoolboys marooned on an island and their gradual deterioration from social order into savagery, you may remember the significance in the novel of the conch shell. After finding the shell on the beach, the boys use it in their meetings: whoever holds the conch shell has the right to speak.  This symbol becomes “an actual vessel of political legitimacy and democratic power,” until the boys inadvertently destroy it, “signifying the demise of the civilized instinct” among the group.

A few Circles recently tried using the indigenous method of passing a Talking Stick (well, Talking Ring) at their Circle Meetings to great success!  They found that passing around and holding something physical  makes the person speaking aware that she is “holding court”.  We are thinking of using this technique at our next family meeting!

Share with us other facilitation techniques to engage introverts and extroverts and ensure a productive conversation where everyone feels heard.