Talking Stick Communication
You may be familiar with a Native American (or First Peoples) tradition that uses a “Talking Stick” in their councils. It can be an effective method to increase safe communication and to understand each other – in families, marriages and business. This article amps up the power of the talking stick in new ways.
First, what is that traditional talking stick? The Talking Stick (or Speaking Staff) is a ceremonial rod that gives the person holding it – the speaker—the right to talk. Holding the staff, the speaker can express feelings and thoughts while others listen attentively without interrupting or questioning the speaker. Then, after the speaker has said everything on his or her mind, the speaker passes the talking stick to the next person who then speaks what’s on their mind. Before any decisions are made, everyone gets to use the talking stick to voice their views.
Sometimes the Talking Stick is accompanied by a “Listening Feather.” This is handed to the person in the group that the remarks are specifically addressed to.
That’s the basic method and it’s pretty good. But here’s how to really leverage it to a more powerful level.
The Talking Stick Dialogue
Rules for the Speaker:
1. Stay on topic. Don’t stray into other subjects, grievances or past hurts. Grasping at random complaints to throw at the listener is called “gunny-sacking” and it is counterproductive. Also, don’t just talk about negative feelings! Please share some positives with the listener.
2. Stay on schedule. Give yourself a guideline of about 4 minutes or less to speak. If the you can’t express your thoughts in that amount of time, you may need to wait until a bit later to speak again. Don’t use a buzzer or formal timer, just estimate.
3. Stay with “I feel” messages. Instead of rehearsing a litany of events or faults, speak the truth about your feelings. Refrain from saying, “First, you were late. Then you were grouchy! Then you insulted me! Then . . . “ Instead, express your feelings about it all: “When that happens, I feel lonely and rejected. I feel scared and hurt—like I’m worthless.” When you convey your tender feelings, it tends to create compassion in the listener. Focus on using terms that describe emotions such as, “I feel worried when. . . I felt angry when. . . . I felt unloved when. . . I feel anxious when. . . . “ Also, avoid saying, “I feel that. . . “ followed by a complaint or a thought. Those expressions are not emotions. They statements of thoughts or complaints. Instead of saying, “I feel that you often ignore me,” stay with your feelings of emotions such as, “I feel lonely and ignored.” Don’t forget to talk about POSITIVE emotions, too. Say, “I love it when I come home and the house is pretty clean. I feel loved and respected when that happens!”
4. Avoid Polarized Thinking. Polarized thinking (or Black and White Thinking) tends to frame ideas in extremes. It leaves little room for discussion when people talk in absolutes. Instead of saying something extreme like, “It killed me when . . .” try replacing this with “When this happens, I felt upset.” Instead of stating, “It’s impossible to . . . ,” say instead, “It seems incredibly difficult.” Here is a table of common polarizing expressions and ways to soften these words.
Polarizing expressions Flexible Expressions
Always Often, at times, sometimes
Never Rarely, not as often as it needs to
Impossible Difficult, challenging, tricky
Killing me Very uncomfortable, distressing, hard
Terrible Troubling, stressful, upsetting
I know for a fact. . . It seems to me. . .
5. Avoid using the word “You” as much as practical. This is challenging and takes quite a bit of practice, but at least keep it as a goal as you learn to do the Talking Stick Dialogue. Do your best to stay away from the word “You” and try for neutral expressions. For instance, replace “When you park the car crookedly,” with something like, “When the car is parked crooked. . .” As another example, replace “When you don’t feed the cat,” with, “When the cat isn’t fed . . . “ Can you sense how avoiding the term “you” is less triggering for everyone?
6. End with your hopes for a positive solution or a good relationship in the future. After the speaker as expressed feelings (both positive and negative) the speaker can express hope and faith that you will understand each other better and will feel closer and stronger in the future. “I really want our marriage to be strong and loving and I am hoping we can do what it takes,” could be a good wrap-up for the speaker.
Rules for the listener:
1. Stay focused. The listeners should face the speaker and make good eye-contact. Giving others the gift of our attention is one of the most important gifts we can share. You are focused on understanding what the speaker is saying and especially what the speaker is feeling.
2. Stay together. Sometimes the speaker will say things that are difficult to hear. This can be a challenge, but don’t bolt. Listen in order to comprehend their point of view and feelings. Give them the safety and security of patient listening. This gift is very important.
3. Stay empathetic. Do your best to connect with the feelings they convey, not just the words that the speaker uses. Try to feel what they feel and put yourself in their shoes.
4. Stay alert. Since you will be reflecting back the speaker’s concerns, you will want to remember what they are saying. When it is your turn to mirror back to them, you better not say, “Uhh, I guess I forgot what you said!”
After the speaker is finished, the listener gets to:
1. Say to the speaker: “Let me see if I understand you. . . “
2. Reflect back to the speaker what the listener just heard — But this is important— say it as if you were the speaker, using the same pronouns like “I” and not “You.” For example, if the speaker just said, “I feel lonely when you stay out late with your girlfriends,” the listener would reflect back the same way, “Let me see if I understand you. . . . ‘I feel lonely when you stay out late with your girlfriends. . . .’ “ Get it? It truly helps the speaker to feel like the listener is trying to be empathetic. And it helps the listener truly empathize with the speaker’s feelings.
3. After the listener is finished reflecting, the listener checks with the speaker and says, “Did I understand you? Did I miss anything?” Then the speaker may remind the listener what was forgotten to be mentioned. At that point the listener adds any forgotten items with something like, “Ok, so also. . . ‘I felt really happy when our anniversary was celebrated with a little vacation.’ “
4. After any missing items are reflected back, the listener can ask, “Is there anything else?” The speaker can add ONE thing at the most. The speaker needs to use all the speaker rules and not forget them at this point!
5. The listener then reflects back the added item the speaker may have mentioned.
6. The listener can/should validate the speaker with something like, “Hey, I appreciate what you just shared with me. It helps me understand you a lot more.” Or, “I can see how you feel that way. . . I feel differently, but now it makes more sense to me.”
Then, the listener has earned the talking stick and the parties swap roles: the listener becomes the speaker and the speaker becomes the listener.
How it works with John and Lilly using a cell phone as the “Talking Stick”:
1. John holds the cell phone as he talks to Lilly using I-messages and feelings. Lilly listens intently so she can reflect back John’s message and emotions.
2. When John is finished, Lilly now reflects back to John what he said to her. She uses “I-messages” and speaks as if she were John. John keeps the “talking stick” while Lilly does her best to put herself in his shoes.
3. Lilly asks John if she “got it.” John points out areas she may have missed. Lilly talks about those parts until John is satisfied that she understands his thoughts and his feelings.
4. Lilly asks if there is anything else that John needs to add. John may add ONE thing at most. Then Lilly reflects back to John.
5. If John is satisfied, then (and only then!) is the “talking stick” given to Lilly, who now takes her turn being the speaker. She uses “I-messages” and feeling words and John listens intently. When Lilly is finished, he tries to reflect back to her, as if he were Lilly, the thoughts and feelings she shared with John. Then he asks Lilly, if he “got” her or if he missed anything.
6. Lilly indicates where John may have missed something. John adds the missing parts and asks Lilly again, “Did I understand you?”
7. For Extra Bonus Points, they can add some validation after each “got it.” Lilly and John can express how they can see how the other would feel/think the way they do. They don’t need to AGREE with the other person. Just understand it from their point of view. This validation that Lilly doesn’t think John is crazy or stupid often really helps the other person to feel understood rather than hostile. Also, this is a great time to express appreciation for the other person’s willingness to communicate safely.
After using the Talking Stick Dialogue to share a deep understanding with each other, then they can proceed to go to the problem-solving stage, if needed. But many times, just feeling deeply understood helps to solve the negative feelings in a relationship. Please see my post on problem-solving which occurs best after people are relaxed and feel heard and understood.