Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Meetings should be an opportunity for people to get together and discuss what they think and feel. They should be there to listen as much as to talk. If they do that they will learn from each other. They will have gathered all the information available at that moment. They can make a decision with this information or decide that they need more information. Either way, isn’t gathering all information available at that moment the usual purpose of a meeting?

It doesn’t happen like that most of the time. There are bold personalities, shy ones, and every shade in between. New ideas may immediately meet skepticism and the proponents are immediately put on the defensive. Behavior like this creates discouraging and intimidating environments.

Is there an alternative? Yes, there are many. But one stands out for its simplicity. Its effectiveness has been proven over centuries when battling tribes had to communicate. The alternative originates from the traditions of native American Indians. They sat in a circle—the formation that’s most conducive to equality. One of their communication tools was a “talking stick.” Whoever held the stick had the right to talk. Everyone else could only listen. When the person finished, the stick returned to the middle of the circle. Anyone who had a contribution to make could then reach for the stick. This simple technique prevented contention and gave everyone a chance to speak.

I first heard about it in “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness” by Dr. Stephen Covey (pages 197 to 198). The image is click-able, by the way. It leads you to an artisan’s website.


Here’s a beautiful description of the talking stick by Dr. Carol Locust, PhD:
The talking stick has been used for centuries by many American Indian tribes as a means of just and impartial hearing. The talking stick was commonly used in council circles to designate who had the right to speak. When matters of great concern came before the council, the leading elder would hold the talking stick and begin the discussion. When he finished what he had to say he would hold out the talking stick, and whoever wished to speak after him would take it. In this manner the stick was passed from one individual to another until all who wished to speak had done so. The stick was then passed back to the leading elder for safe keeping.

Some tribes used a talking feather instead of a talking stick. Other tribes might have a peace pipe, a wampum belt, a sacred shell, or some other object by which they designate the right to speak. Whatever the object, it carries respect for free speech and assures the speaker he has the freedom and power to say what is in his heart without fear of reprisal or humiliation.

Whoever holds the talking stick has within his hands the sacred power of words. Only he can speak while he holds the stick; the other council members must remain silent. The eagle feather tied to the talking stick gives him the courage and wisdom to speak truthfully and wisely. The rabbit fur on the end of the stick reminds him that his words must come from his heart and that they must be soft and warm. The blue stone will remind him that the Great Spirit hears the message of his heart as well as the words he speaks. The shell, iridescent and ever changing, reminds him that all creation changes—the days, the seasons, the years—and people and situations change, too. The four colors of beads—yellow for the sunrise (east), red for the sunset (west), white for the snow (north) and green for the earth (south)—are symbolic of the powers of the universe he has in his hands at the moment to speak what is in his heart. Attached to the stick are strands of hair from the great buffalo. He who speaks may do so with the power and strength of this great animal.

The speaker should not forget that he carries within himself a sacred spark of the Great Spirit, and therefore he is also sacred. If he feels he cannot honor the talking stick with his words, he should refrain from speaking so he will not dishonor himself. When he is again in control of his words, the stick will be returned to him.
Dr. Locust is affiliated with the Cherokee tribe.

Another and more succinct description came from here. The talking stick is:
a Native American tradition used to facilitate an orderly discussion. Usually speakers are arranged in a talking circle and the stick is passed from hand to hand as the discussion progresses. It encourages all to speak and allows each person to speak without interruption. The talking stick brings all natural elements together to guide and direct the talking circle. The stick is made of wood, decorated with feathers or fur, beads or paint, or a combination of all.
Here's another one.
Practice using the talking stick. The next person to speak should begin by paraphrasing the remarks of the preceding speaker. The preceding speaker will have the opportunity to confirm the accuracy of the paraphrase. The idea is to ensure that the next person has a clear understanding of the preceding speaker's message. (Incidentally, this idea can be expanded to ensure that the group and not just the next person, understands the preceding speaker's message.)

A talking stick can bring order to a group meeting.

The talking stick was used by Native Americans to show who had the right to speak. The chief would hold the talking stick and begin the discussion. He would pass the talking stick to the next speaker. Only the individual holding the stick could speak.

Communication in Native American culture differs from contemporary American-style communication. The former values cooperation over competition. When Native Americans engage in conversation they listen intently. They usually look down and do not establish eye contact until the person speaking has completely finished talking. Each man was assured that he could talk and finish his thought without interruption.

By now it should be obvious what the Talking Stick can do. Whether the stick is returned to the middle of the circle or passed to another person, the stick serves as a token of the right to speak, or more accurately, to be heard without interruption.

Here’s how I first used it. I broke a flimsy branch off a tree in winter (it was about to fall off anyway). I brought the branch into the restaurant and requested the staff to cut it down to a manageable piece. My party came in and after eating I explained the Talking Stick and how we would use it. There was some initial hesitation but after the first person spoke, everyone went with the program.

Why don’t you try it yourself?

  1. For kids
  2. From Wikipedia
  3. From A native American Indian website (nice description!)
  4. Amazon: The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness

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