The Talking Stick

Last week I was involved in a discussion on a very hot topic in a group of more than 45 people and almost the same diversity of national cultures. About every individual in the room had a firm opinion on the topic and the debate was on: a lot of intelligent people making their point but getting nowhere. Why? Because there was a lot of talking and no listening.

Fortunately we had a good facilitator who introduced us to some very simple rules of what he called ‘the talking stick’. The rules were as follows:

– This whiteboard marker is a talking stick
– When you have the talking stick you – and only you – can talk
– When you are finished talking you hand it over to the next person
– The next person repeats back what you said BEFORE making his/her point
– You need to confirm whether you were understood or not
– The next person repeats back UNTIL YOU FEEL YOU ARE UNDERSTOOD
– Then – and only then – the next person can make his/her point

A lot of things happened when we started the exercise. The first times it felt weird but very soon all the individuals end up carefully listening. A lot of people need an extra loop of listening and at first this seems to slow down the communication. However, this exercise makes very good use of the intelligence of every individual in the room because:

– as a speaker you need to be very precise
– as a listener you really have to listen
– as a not-speaker you are totally focused on the conversation thread.

I have been told that the talking stick is part of the 8th Habit book of Stephen Covey. Shame on me for not having read it yet. In the below movie you can see Stephen Covey explaining the talking stick and its success.

Covey talked about how he learned of the Indian Talking Stick when working with Native American Tribes. These tribes used a talking stick to ensure that each party was able to express themselves and feel listened to.

Here are some other takeaways from the group discussion that I attended:

– We found out that one does not need to agree in order to receive the other person’s communication and to acknowledge understanding.
– One extravert manager reported that ‘not being allowed to talk’ made her ‘listen instead of talk’ and she found out that ‘not talking’ was more productive to the conversation 5 times out of 6.

Wow, this exercise was really a powerful experience and if I ever get the challenge of ‘too many people saying too many things’ I hope I remember it.