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February | Leadership Development | Read time: calculating...

Listen to the Talking Sticks

Many words are uttered, far fewer are heard and really understood.

Talking sticks have been around a long, long time – and they work.

It’s not magic but, when used correctly, a stick can facilitate the conversation among a group of people and build stronger connections between them, it can improve their understanding of each other, and it can enhance their prospects for easing tensions or resolving problems.

The use of talking sticks is now widespread around the world, at all sorts of spiritual and secular gatherings, in team and leader development programs and in the school classroom. But their origins lie in the sacred customs of Native American tribes.

The decorated sticks of the indigenous Americans are laden with spiritual meaning.  The type of wood chosen is significant – pine represents peace, birch stands for truth – and the combination of colours and attachments (eg bird feathers) also carry specific shared meanings.

The sticks are used to promote civil and orderly discussions at a gathering of the tribe, or tribes. One person holds the stick and voices whatever they wish to say, without interruption. Everyone else at the gathering remains silent and listens, attentively. When the speaker is finished, the talking stick is passed to the next person. They may choose to talk, or not talk (in tribal custom the words uttered when holding the stick are sacred).

Despite their spiritual origins, talking sticks can work just as well in a modern secular world – regardless of whether you use an indigenous stick, which are now sold online as souvenirs, or a substitute.  Sacred or secular, it is the group psychology at play that is fundamental to the process.

The person holding the stick is given the confidence and safety to speak. Regardless of status, their words are the only things that count at that moment. That can be affirming. But the real strength of the talking stick lies with the rest of the group, those who are obliged to listen carefully and in silence and try to understand the messages being conveyed. Instead of interrupting and contesting, or merely filtering or judging the remarks, the rest of the group is being asked to take the first steps to empathetic listening – to be open to all the verbal and non-verbal signs and to try to feel what the speaker is expressing.

We know the talking sticks make a difference, we’ve known it for centuries. It is contained in the legend about the formation of the Iroquois nation long before the white settlers landed in America. Seven warring tribes in the north-east used talking sticks to gradually resolve their conflicts and eventually form a confederation.  Subsequently, some of the founding fathers of the US Constitution drew on that legend as inspiration for their own endeavours.

Have you really tried to just listen to someone else?  How hard is it to stop yourself from interrupting?