The chance to speak and the art of listening

The Talking Circle

Talking sticks are commonly used in the so-called talking circle, which is a traditional way for native peoples in North America to solve problems. It is a very effective way to remove barriers and to allow people to express themselves with complete freedom. For this reason, it is becoming more and more popular in mainstream society. The talking circle is making its appearance in schools, corporate board rooms and team dressing rooms around the world, for the simple reason that the technique works very well. The symbolism of the circle, with no beginning and with nobody in a position of prominence, serves to encourage people to speak freely and honestly about things that are on their minds.

The Talking Stick

The talking stick is a wooden stick about a foot long, decorated with symbolic items of nature that have meaning to the owner. The animals used in the decoration of the talking stick are very symbolic. For example the bear is usually seen as a symbol of strength, dreaming, and protector/healer; the beaver is usually characterized as a builder; the wolf symbolizes teacher of wisdom and new ideas and so on. Some tribes believe that the animal selected the person and not that the person selects the animal. The sort of wood used to make the talking stick would also be related to the owner. Birch symbolizes truth; Maple represents gentleness; Elm is used for wisdom and so on. The decorations can be feathers, images, leather, beads, fur, bone, shells, etc. These ornaments also have meaning. The colors and the types of feathers and hide would also symbolize something related to the owner and thus the talking stick became a very personal item. Sometimes people would put the talking stick out in the full moon light to allow the spirits to enter. No talking stick would be the same as the material and decorations used would be specific to the owner of the talking stick.

Traditional use of the talking stick

The talking stick has been used for centuries by many native tribes in North America 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.

Talking circle

The talking stick was also commonly used in a talking circle. A talking circle is a traditional instrument for dealing with the things that interfere with the normal everyday concerns of a person or their community whether the concern is trivial or serious in nature. The circle may be applied safely and confidentially to resolve conflicts, misconceptions, disagreements or deeper problems.

A talking circle works in this way that everyone sits in a circle, generally with men to the North and women to the South. The conductor of the circle will generally sit in the East. The talking stick or a token such as a feather is passed clockwise around the circle. As each person receives the talking stick or the token, they may speak for as long as they wish, including addressing a topic brought up by another in the circle. When they have finished, they pass the stick or token along. If someone does not wish to speak, they simply pass the stick or token. The stick or token may go around several times; when everyone has had the opportunity to speak as many times as they wish, the conductor ends the circle.

There are several types of talking circles. The most common type of circle is a simple sharing circle, where people just share whatever they have to say. There is no particular purpose or theme, and many fascinating side-trips often happen. The sharing circle is also an excellent introduction to ceremonies.

Another common circle, and perhaps the most powerful, is the healing circle. This is generally guided by the conductor, and will be convened to deal with issues that are bothering people. These issues may be specific, or the circle may be called to simply allow everyone to get any problems off their chests. Very often, a simple chance to have a voice, and to have a problem heard in a sympathetic and supportive environment, is all that a person requires for healing. In addition, sharing amongst a group allows everyone to take a piece of the burden from the person with the problem, who then leaves the circle with a lighter load. However, since the problem does not belong to the other participants, they are able to lay down the piece of the burden they accepted and walk away without having increased their own loads.

Another type of circle is used to mediate problems between people, either individuals or groups. Again, very often all that is required for a solution to such problems is the opportunity to hear and speak in complete honesty, so that both sides of the problem become aware of the impact of the problem on the other party. In these circles, the conductor guides the participants toward finding their own equitable solution to their problem, since a solution that is created by the participants is the most likely to work over the long term. There are a few very simple guidelines that allow a talking circle to function:
  1. Only one person speaks at a time - only the person holding the feather or talking stick may speak. Dialogues are not part of the circle, as they can become confrontational.
  2. Introduce yourself - it is polite to introduce yourself in the first round.
  3. Speak from the heart - the speaker should address the circle from the heart, and may speak for as long as they need to, with respect for the time of others.
  4. Listen with respect - all people except the speaker listen attentively and give support to the speaker. Listening with the heart allows you to hear the true intent beneath what the speaker is saying. Listen in the way you expect others to hear you.
  5. What is said in the circle stays in the circle - never repeat anything that is said within the circle, unless you have the permission of the speaker.

When convening a circle, smudging the participants with sage will help dispel any negativity they may be carrying with them. In a way, it's like 'wiping' your spiritual 'feet' before entering the circle. As well, keeping a sage smudge burning during the circle, particularly when emotions are intense, will help keep negativity from entering.


Linda Wolf & Jean Kilbourne on the Daughters Sisters Project (2:05)

TeenTalkingCircle - The Truth Shall set us Free (4:51)

Jean Kilbourne on Parents and the media (2:35)

Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession With Thinness ()