Mindfulness doesn’t equal meditation. There are various definitions of mindfulness, but in the end, it all comes back to paying attention to what is going on with you and your surroundings at any given moment. It is about being fully aware. And it has an obvious application in communication.
In the Native American tradition, there is an interesting tool used to moderate conversations and ensure the code of conduct of respect during meetings. It’s called the talking stick, and it can be seen as a representation of mindfulness in communication.
The talking stick allows council members to present their points of view uninterrupted. It gets passed from person to person during the discussion, and only the person holding it is allowed to talk. Everyone else must carefully listen to the speaker, so they don’t repeat something already said when it is their turn. People may still disagree with the speaker’s point of view, but they also understand what the speaker is saying. They are bound by their honor to allow everyone their opinions without mocking them or interrupting.
The talking stick is used in a variety of situations, starting with teaching children, making decisions in disputes, conducting ceremonies or council meetings, or even in storytelling circles. You can use it wherever you need some sort of order, you need only one person at the time to talk and everyone else to listen attentively.
Some indigenous cultures don’t use an actual stick but another object with the same goal. An eagle feather, a peace pipe, or a sacred shell are all used. It is not about the actual object but about the idea it represents.
If you are invited to a tribe’s meeting, there are some rules to follow, as summarized in a blog post on a website that provides information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Let me paraphrase to use in office settings.
- The meeting organizer will hold the talking stick and will be the first to speak.
- All in attendance are expected to listen to the person talking.
- Listen with respect, support, compassion, and quietness.
- Listen, so you don’t repeat information that has already been shared.
- Allow ample time before your next appointment, and do not check your watch.
- Interrupting the speaker is not allowed. Turn off your phone. Don’t check emails.
- When the person holding the talking stick finished speaking, the stick is handed to the next person in the circle.
- If the receiver does not wish to speak, they pass it to the next person.
- If you are handed the talking stick and wish to speak, introduce yourself first.
- When everyone who wishes to speak has spoken, the talking stick is handed back to the meeting owner.
Consider the benefits of using an approach like the talking stick. It is inclusive. It gives everyone an opportunity to speak. Regardless of how proactive or loud you are, you will have the same voice as everyone else. The fact that only one person can talk at any given time, and there are no other distractions, forces people to listen. Because you know that your time will come, you don’t need to spend your energy trying to speak up, interrupt, or worry whether you will get the opportunity. It helps people to respect the ideas of others. Not repeating an argument presented by someone else also keeps your ego in check. It creates psychological safety and leads to people being willing to say whatever they think without worry about ridicule or retribution. All the participants care about is to get all their ideas into the shared pool of meaning and then pick the best way forward or make the best decision taking into account the needs and contributions of everyone.
Even a more potent version of the talking stick approach is to require the next person to reflect back on what the previous speaker said to his or her satisfaction before they get the right to voice their opinion. Once the previous speaker feels understood, he or she passes the talking stick to the next person. This reinforces the need to truly listen and to understand the other person. It can be a powerful technique, especially in disagreements where each side strongly believes in their cause and isn’t interested in hearing anything that would go against their belief.
Stephen R. Covey talks extensively about this technique in The 8th Habit. According to him, the key is not only to listen to be able to repeat back what was said but to understand. You then need to demonstrate your understanding to the person who made the point. If they don’t feel you understood, you need to try again and can’t make your own point until they are satisfied that you’ve got what they were trying to convey.
Keep in mind that understanding doesn’t equal agreement. You can still disagree with their opinion, but you need to understand it. The effect then is that you are more open-minded and less dogmatic when thinking about it and presenting your point of view.
Putting it all together
The talking stick is an excellent exercise in both communication and mindfulness. You don’t need any special skills or tools. You can pick a pen, agree with others on the meeting on the rules, that only the holder of the pen can speak and that the next person is allowed to present their opinion only after the first speaker feels understood, and here you go. It may take a bit of practice, and it may feel that it is not particularly efficient. It becomes easier with time. More importantly, even though it may not feel efficient, it is effective. And as I wrote previously, communication shouldn’t be efficient. It should be effective.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Have you ever tried the talking stick exercise or something similar? Did it work? What problems have you encountered? What benefits did you see?
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