Talking Stick

The Talking Stick is the backbone of your Saturday Salon. It is the one element, other than your own personality, presence, and preparation, that keeps the conversation on track. It allows you to discuss any topic, no matter how sensitive or potentially volatile, with openness, depth, and mutual respect. Talking Sticks have been used in many cultures, but is most well-known in America from the Native American culture, whose members used them in their councils.

A Native American Council is different from a conversation salon, its purpose more for conflict resolution or to make tribal decisions, than to talk about a variety of topics, but the Talking Stick is useful to both. Our Talking Stick was made by a native group in Canada, who were pleased we were making good use of it. If you don’t have an actual Talking Stick, use a tennis ball or a sea shell. It doesn’t matter what the object is. Our first two years we used a Talking Lemon, or Apple-whatever was handy in my fruit bowl!

In your Saturday Salon, after the pot luck and the introductions, when you’re all settled and ready to begin, hand the hat with the topics in it and the Talking Stick, to one of the guests. Select someone you know is confident enough to go first. That person selects a question from the hat, reads it aloud, and gives you back the hat. They then hold the Talking Stick, and give their thoughts on the topic. Everyone else’s job is to listen, not just wait for their turn to talk. There is no time limit. Each person is allowed to speak until they have thoroughly expressed themselves. The only rule is to stay on topic and be respectful of everyone’s time.

In a true Native American council, when a tribe was deciding whether or not to go to war or when to move camp, people sometimes spoke for hours, so we can afford to give someone two to five minutes. You can give a pre-arranged signal like tapping your watch to get someone to wrap it up if you need to.

While that person has the Talking Stick, no one else in the circle can interrupt, comment, or ask questions. When the speaker is ready, they pass the stick to the next person, who then gives their thoughts. Start with a different person for each question, so everyone has a chance to go first or be the last to comment after listening to everyone else’s thoughts.

If the topic is particularly volatile or the comments rich, and people still have more to say, you can go around the room again with the Talking Stick. I’ve tried opening it up to cross-talk at that time, but this can quickly devolve into arguing, and then it’s difficult to get the group back for the next topic.

If you explain its purpose, people understand that the Talking Stick is a powerful tool that enables them to gather their thoughts and freely express themselves without interruption. Again—where in our lives do we ever get that chance? What a gift to give your guests.

Although I love a good debate over dinner as well as the next person, you never get to hear the quiet engineer’s opinion, or the person who does not speak English well, or the odd-spouse-out at the company party where everyone else from the same industry is talking shop.

The Talking Stick is the tool that allows everyone to be heard.


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