During the recent government shut down, a bipartisan group of roughly two-dozen senators helped craft the funding deal to re-open the government. The group used a “talking stick” as a tool to facilitate their meeting, only allowing the senator with the stick to speak in an effort to cut down on interruptions.
The use of the “talking stick” originated in Indigenous North American customs and is today also commonly used in restorative practices such as the circle, a process used to build connections and resolve disputes in community. Sometimes the “talking stick” is replaced by another sort of “talking piece,” an object that has special significance to the group or facilitator using it. For example, I have heard a story of a group of construction workers having a difficult conversation about workplace safety using the hard hat of a deceased workmate as a talking piece to pass around in the circle.
Regardless of the specific object used, the talking piece fulfills the important function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication. However, in order for the talking piece to function effectively, it must hold meaning for the group or be imbued with meaning by a skilled facilitator.
One of the criticisms I often hear about the talking stick is that it feels like kindergarten and that adults shouldn’t need a physical object to remind them to listen and not interrupt each other. However, that just isn’t the reality of most adult interactions, with women especially being interrupted constantly, particularly in the workplace. There are a few things that facilitators can do to make the talking piece feel less like a kindergarten throw-back and more like a meaningful and unifying symbol of the group and what is being discussed.
One strategy is to choose an object that is meaningful to the group you are facilitating for. One facilitator I spoke with for my research described his strategy for making a talking piece relevant.
I have used it [a talking piece] in quite macho environments. If you take something that is of significance to them, people get it. I’m imaging sitting down with the All Blacks and actually saying this is the cap that one of the great All Black wore, it is part of our legacy and we are going to use that. If we get to the heart of what a talking piece is about and make it significant and right for them, I don’t think we have a problem. (Facilitator 4)
In the case of the Senate, perhaps there is an object with a tie specifically to American history of the history or procedures of the Senate that could be used. If the object feels sacred or treasured to the people in the room, it is more likely to be respected and honored.
If as a facilitator you are using a talking piece that does not have a special meaning to the group, it is best to use an object that does have special meaning to you that you are able to explain to the group, thus imbuing the object with significance in the minds of participants. One talking piece I have used before is a small stick from a cotton wood tree with a star on the inside that my dad found and gave me. At first glance, it just looks like a small twig with no real significance, but in introducing it, I talk about how we used to search for the star sticks when I was a child and about the connections to nature and traditions that make a place feel like home. Because I have expressed how important the talking piece is to me and have tied it to a greater universal theme, it is respected by the others in the group. The stick has been imbued with meaning.
In reading the account of the Senate’s use of the talking stick, I was struck by the description of a senator throwing the stick after being interrupted. It would be interesting to know how the talking stick was introduced by Senator Susan Collins. Did she explain the ties to Native American customs or that it was a personal gift she received, or was it introduced more casually or perhaps in a self-deprecating way? Regardless, I commend her for her bravery in introducing something so “out there” for the Senate that could be a real tool in equalizing the voices heard in groups of leaders (most especially, I hope, the voices of women and other marginalized groups). Still, I wonder if a more intentional introduction of the talking piece could lead to an even better outcome.
I would also like to know if the ball the group later switched to using as a talking piece now holds some special meaning for the group. If it is used again in the future, will it be more easily and automatically respected in its function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication? I hope that there are more government experiments in respectful communication strategies to come!
 No pun intended! 🙂