The Talking Circle

Picture a classroom of energized ten-year-olds who have just read My Side of the Mountain. It’s the imaginative and engaging tale of a boy who spends a year in the wilderness, learning survival as he deals with solitude, hardship, and his own coming of age.  I had joined the class to to discuss some of the skills of living the boy in the story learned and used. I showed pictures of making shelter from sticks and leaves, talked about my adventures finding water and wild food, and demonstrated making fire with a bow drill. The students peppered me with questions and stories of their own experiences. When I made fire for them with the bow drill and then with flint and steel they crowded around, excited and inspired by this real-life experience of what was in the book.

Observing those kids, I noticed something that happens frequently in groups of children, adults, and everyone in between. Some speak, some don’t; some ask questions, some don’t; some are engaged, others withdrawn. What was missing was the opportunity for every person in that group to be noticed, respected, and heard, able to offer what they had to say with confidence that they would be listened to, not interrupted or drowned out. In that group of enthusiastic kids, some missed out simply because they didn’t jump in. Who got to be the centre of attention was determined mainly by assertiveness or by an external control (me in this case). A different way was needed, to ensure that every kid had the chance to speak.

A different way is here – has been for a very long time. This way is based in respect, demonstrated by patience, self-discipline, and attentiveness. It encourages self-confidence and “standing in your own truth.” It’s called a talking circle. The talking circle allows and encourages people to speak from their hearts. Its process and protocols create and enhance safety, and allow people to speak and listen deeply. Its power arises in large part from the confidence that the circle is a safe place. It’s easy to implement and the impact can be profound.

The Process of the Talking Circle

If you choose to bring a talking circle to as group, begin by guiding the participants through the first four steps below. After that, until the circle ends you (usually) become a participant at the same level and in the same circle as everyone else.

In some circumstance it may be necessary for you to guide the process; this is to be done with respect and patience. If you are a facilitator as well as a participant, you can have a second object beside you. The understanding for the group is that if you pick up your object, the person who has the talking symbol immediately stops speaking while you do a “course correction” for the group. This may be as simple as a reminder about the protocols.

1. Choose an object to be used as a talking symbol. It could be a stick, feather, stone, or other significant object. This is the first point of agreement: everyone should accept the chosen object. Sometimes two objects will be the symbol. We once used a small stone and a feather so light I had to look at it to be sure it was still on my palm.

2. Have participants form as round a circle as the space allows. Leave a gap so that anyone who comes to the circle can join easily. If a new arrival joins, create another space. Have a fire in the centre if possible. Even a candle is good, to provide a focus.

3. If participants are experienced with the circle, the symbol is placed near the centre of the circle to signal to participants to focus their attention. If this is the first time for the participants, place the symbol beside you while you describe the process. Then place the symbol near the centre of the circle.

4. The first person who feels ready to speak picks up the object and begins. When this person is done for that round, they pass the object, and with it the right to speak, to the person to their left. The object moves clockwise around the circle.

5. Each person speaks or passes the object silently, as they wish.

6. The object goes around the circle until it makes one complete circle with no one saying anything. If the last one who spoke has no more words when the object returns to them, they place it back in the centre. This ends the circle.

Guiding Protocols of the Talking Circle

• The only person who speaks into the circle is the one holding the talking symbol.
• Speak only truth. No jokes or stories other than actual experiences.
• Speak from your heart, about how you feel.
• Tell your own story, not someone else’s. This means no giving advice or commenting directly on what another person has said.
• Don’t reach out to comfort someone else if they’re having an emotionally intense moment. This is a time to respect both their individual experience and your own.
• What is said in the circle stays in the circle unless explicit consent is given to raise it outside the circle. Sometimes it’s appropriate to invite further discussion.
• It is okay to leave temporarily for things such as to look after a child or to get coffee.
• It is not respectful to have a side conversation or make a side comment about something that has been said in the circle.
• In general, don’t make eye contact with the speaker. Allow them privacy to look inside and to speak their truth. This is difficult for people whose culture has taught them that it is important to look people in the eye.

I learned these procedures and protocols through years of careful observation in talking circles and healing circles in community groups, in traditional settings, in groups of my own students, in classes of elementary and secondary students, even in university classrooms. They all have meaning and purpose that may not be evident at first.

In a family meeting, a classroom, a social gathering, an office, or anywhere else, a fresh tone can be established by applying the principles of the talking circle. People of all ages respond to it with relief and gratitude. The effects can be profound, affecting the ongoing tone of the group and carrying over into the lives of participants. I invite you to bring the these processes and protocols into your communities, test them, and modify them with care to make them your own.

April 26, 2021

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