The Talking Stick
The talking stick is a tradition that has been used within Native American and other aboriginal councils as an aid to discussion and communication. The stick usually belonged to the leader of a council and would be constructed from materials that brought particular ‘medicine’ or energy to the group. The intention might be to bring energy of truth, understanding or clarity to the proceedings for example. The tree providing the wood would be carefully selected, as would colours, feathers or other attachments according to their symbolism. The stick would then be passed between council members who took turns to speak, with only the person holding the stick having permission to speak at any one time unless they consented to the contributions of others during that time.
So why would we want to use this process today?
Well, the stick ensured that all were given the space and opportunity to speak and be heard without interruption. It said that all people around the circle were equal and all had a right to contribute and for that contribution to be respected and valued. It recognised the nature of communication as a two party activity – a speaker and a listener – where roles were continually interchanged and yet each was as important as the other.
If we speak and no-one listens then it can leave us feeling alone, rejected, excluded, isolated. Our contribution and its source – ourselves – are not being accepted and validated. However, when we speak and are truly attended to, it can help us feel connected, included, appreciated. It helps our self-esteem, helps us to trust, to feel worthwhile and that we want to contribute more.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find places or people to speak with where we can have the experience of being heard. Listening has become unfashionable. Anyone who has tuned in to the House of Commons of the UK government will know that even the MPs, the nation’s decision makers, seem only interested in being heard and will shout down the voices of others until all that remains is a cacophony of sound. This often leads to scenes like the one below where the the Speaker of the House is compelled to talk to MPs like a group of unruly school children so that anyone can be heard. Is it any wonder that the country is in political turmoil when this is the environment in which the direction of the country is being decided upon? It seems that the ability to shout the loudest has been mistaken for power, when in fact it is the abuse of power. Far from showing a strong ability to communicate it is more akin to bullying in its attempts to silence others through brute force,
. This is not communication!
This also translates to other situations where there is a tendency to lean towards ideas of hierarchy, such as workplaces and families. These groups can also find themselves in a communication nightmare when some people seem to have the metaphorical talking stick on a permanent basis while others are consistently denied a voice or are demeaned when they attempt to speak or think for themselves.
In a media-drenched culture the business of communication has also become the exertion of power and leads to gross imbalances across our world. Our information age talks to us all the time through media of all kinds. We dutifully listen to the onslaught of messages and statements that surround us. But these messages and statements that command us to believe in them rarely solicit a response or an opinion. We are not required to listen in the true sense of the word, as an active participant in communication, we are simply asked to absorb and so to amend ourselves, our thoughts, our ideas accordingly. This is what ‘listening’ means to many and we are already overloaded with information of what we should do, think or say, how we should look, what food we should eat, how much we should be earning, what we should be worrying about and on and on. We are encouraged to be orientated around the self and yet not to listen to ourselves. This can make it incredibly difficult to listen and empathise with others and learning this can be a discipline in itself, but one that would have lasting effects for our communities.
When we are able to speak from our hearts and be heard by someone who is truly listening, then we can draw on the truth within us, the beauty and wisdom that we keep locked away to avoid the harsh words of others. We can create change, we can learn and we can grow. Think how you would feel if you knew that when you opened your mouth to speak you could rely on being respected and heard. Would you not take more risks with your words, your thoughts, the ways that you express yourself? And would it not be easier to listen to others if you knew that you would have your turn to speak instead of having to fight for it?
The talking stick is not just a tradition or a process. It represents an ethos for communication which is intensely relevant for our world today. Through its message we can learn not only to listen, but also to speak in a way that embodies that listening. We can speak in a way that reflects our listening to our own heart, that values ourselves in speaking as much as we value another in listening.
Why not try it?
Find a stick or simply an object that stands for the stick, and have a conversation or discussion on an issue with someone where you only talk when you have the stick in your hand. Think about what you want to say, you don’t have to hurry to speak in case you lose your chance and someone speaks over you or interrupts. This is your speaking time and no-one will take it away from you. Let the other person ask you questions if they need more information to understand what you are saying, but this time is about your thoughts and feelings on whatever issue you are discussing.
Don’t hog the stick, pass it over when you’re done making your point and let the other person take it if they have something to say. You will have another chance to speak later.
When you don’t have the stick, just listen to what the other person is saying and focus on understanding it without trying to think of what you will say next. You can be listened to when it’s your turn. Ask questions to clarify anything you are not clear about, but do not offer or mentally construct your thoughts or opinions on what the other person is saying until it is your turn to speak. This is time to be open, to listen and respect the other person’s views. There will be time for you to speak when you have the stick.
This can feel very different if you are used to having fast moving conversations where you have to fight to be heard. Using the talking stick to communicate in a different way can be a way to identify our usual communication patterns. If you find yourself chomping at the bit to speak, getting irritated and impatient at having to wait for others to finish, or by contrast, if having others give you their full attention feels uncomfortable, it can be a good pointer to areas you can work on to make your communication more effective. Do you feel more comfortable as a speaker or a listener? Good communication that creates positive connections between people and solves problems in a way that respects everyone involved demands both.
Of course, you can also use the idea of the talking stick for fun! Check out this lovely video of some children in Alaska using the stick to tell a story as a group:
Thank you for allowing me to hold the stick and speak. I now pass it to you and invite your comments 🙂