The Talking Piece
Recently, I have been in several conversations concerning problem solving or meeting formats or conflict resolutions and each time the first thought that came to mind was, ‘we need a restorative circle.’ People are complex and passionate. We all have unique experiences and perspectives, which can cause disagreement and misunderstandings in any group setting. Some people will feel open to voicing their thoughts and feelings while others may not feel so welcome so the conversation may not reflect everyone involved. I think there is a greater issue though, and that is our ability to actually listen to one another. In the pervious two circle series posts I discussed the importance of the circle in creating an equitable space and then the importance of asking the right questions. The talking piece though, I feel is the most important element because it binds the previous two and makes the process not just equitable or effective, but forces us to follow through on the most important part of communicating which is listening.
The talking piece is the most difficult part to sell to new participants of a restorative circle. I hear the same comments every time the talking piece is introduced, ‘why do we have to use the talking piece? We don’t need it, we can take our turn.’ The reality is that most people cannot wait their turn in a conversation. We are quick to interrupt each other. We are generating new thoughts before the other person has even finished their sentence and we want to speak what is on our mind. Whether working with adults or youth, I have to teach how to be a god listener. We have to discuss what it looks like and sounds like to be a good listener. Then I will often provide strategies on how to participate in a circle as a good listener. The idea of having to actually wait with your thoughts is excruciating to some, especially when the circle includes more then two people. Often times I suggest participants bring a note pad and pen to write down what they want to say as reference for when it is their turn to speak.
So, now we have everyone sitting in a circle. As mentioned previously I have facilitated circles as large as thirty people. Now imagine sitting in a circle of thirty people with the task of discussing something such as how to improve moral among the group. First step as the facilitator, lay out the rules of the circle such clarifying that the circle is a safe space meant to identify how people are feeling without belittling or shaming anyone. The number one thing to always remember about restorative circles is that they are not punitive! Once the group has agreed to keep the circle civil and fair, the next step is to explain the purpose of the talking stick. In all of my trainings, it has been made very clear that the talking piece must be culturally sensitive to the experiences of those involved. The talking piece cannot be something that has cultural significance and might offend those participating by its use as a talking piece.
What is the purpose of talking piece? It’s very simple; if the talking stick is not in your hands then it is not your turn to talk. Again, I’d like to point out that you are participating in a circle of thirty people. Does the idea of waiting for thirty other people to speak before you can voice your opinions seem impossible? The process may seem painful, but there is something important to remember and that is, the process is about the group not just one person. The talking piece ensures everyone is heard and given the time they need to express themselves. If it takes a few minutes for someone to gather their thoughts, then we wait. We wait and respect that the person with the talking piece deserves to be heard just like everyone else (including you). This dynamic forces us to listen to one another and to sit on our thoughts instead of just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. It gives us time to reflect on our own thoughts and hear the thoughts of others. Incase anyone should forget the rules and speak out of turn, the facilitator can remind the person that since they do not have the talking piece in their hand that it is not their turn to speak. Simple. Except, people are not simple, people are complex and passionate. To be able to participate fully in a restorative circle means developing a skill set that include being a good listener, being patient and functioning as a collaborative group member rather than an individual with self-interests. Can you imagine the kind of world we would be living in if everyone had these skills and made the conscious choice to use them? This is the magic of the restorative circle, it teaches people to respect the complexities and passions of all those participating by giving everyone the responsibility of listening and responding respectfully in turn on an equal playing field.
How have you seen people change during and after a restorative circle?
Click the photos below to learn more about circles…
Example of a Talking Piece
Grupo Nahual convenes community circles to address issues using a Mayan practice giving the right to speak in turn to circle participants by passing a stick. The circles include gang involved youth. Copyright © Donna DeCesare, 2009.
Debbie Little, restorative practices coordinator, South Lyon, Michigan, Community Schools, conducts a circle at Centennial Middle School.