Talking Stick

Many people — perhaps most — have heard about the tradition in some Native American tribes of the talking stick. Most people know the story as this…

Whoever has the talking stick can speak. Everyone else must remain quiet. The stick gets passed around (or back and forth), until everyone has been heard, and everything that needs saying has been said.

The stick can be anything, but it is generally symbolic. It gives the speaker the courage to speak boldly, and reminds them to speak from the heart.

Now here’s the part of the tradition that’s a little harder to find. To me it’s the really important bit., and maybe it’s not all that common, even amongst Native Americans.

The speaker does not relinquish the stick to the next person until he or she feels understood. Toward that end, others can ask a question or two to see if they understand — but they cannot make their own point. They cannot disagree. They cannot even agree.

That is the power of the talking stick.

I’m in a lot of conversations where people disagree — at work, and among friends. Here’s how those conversations so often go:

  • Joe: I think blah blah blah.
  • Jane: I disagree. I think yada yada yada.
  • Me: Wait. Jane — you disagree with what Joe said?
  • Jane: Yes! He thinks boogedy boogedy boogedy.
  • Me: Joe — did you say you thought boogedy boogedy boogedy?
  • Joe: No! I said blah blah blah!
  • Jane: That’s what I said!
  • Joe: No it isn’t!
  • Me: Jane, would you please tell Joe what you think he said?

… and so it goes…

Depending on my role (or, I’ll admit, my agenda) in the conversation, I will often echo back what I thought Joe said, and what Jane said, and lead the discussion to some form of decision. Usually blah blah blah and/or yada yada yada will lead to some sort of decision.

But the decision-making starts with being heard. And you’re not hearing until the person speaking says so. You’re not hearing until the person speaking says so.