Oh No, I’ve Been Invited to a Talking Circle

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So, you’ve been invited to attend a Talking Circle. As sharing is implied, one must conclude that a participant must share their feelings, thoughts, and opinions. 

I think a lot of people might think to themselves, “I’d rather see the dentist for a tooth extraction.” Sharing for me can be compared to pulling teeth. Many people would rather stay home and catch up on reruns of the Dr. Phil than attend a Talking Circle.   

People wondering if they should attend one might be concerned that there is a good possibility that they might experience negative feedback including prejudices surrounding their culture; actually, one might be surprised to know that there are guidelines to a Talking Circle. Circles won’t be putting anyone in the hot seat even though creating a hostile environment might be somewhat more entertaining than watching old Dr. Phil reruns.

Some people might be motivated to go to a Traditional Talking Circle if it’s described like a corporate workshop where fixing a problem would be the norm. But then they might realize it is about sharing rather than fixing and it will be too late for them to leave.  

First a little bit about Talking Circle. The narrative of the Talking Circle originated from five Native American tribes: Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and the Onandaga. While listening has been a core Christian practice since the New Testament, the use of a talking piece and a listening circle has a particular development. And its use has a steady increase especially by Indigenous communities in North America.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” James 1:19

Listening is a very important concept in the Bible. We are commanded to listen to God’s instructions. The Bible also teaches us to love others—and listening to them is a way that we communicate love. “Taking the time to listen, to truly listen, to someone can truly communicate our love and respect even more than our spoken words.”—Anonymous 

In fact, Talking Circles have been used in the Blanket Exercise and Hearts Exchanged with Christian Reformed church congregations and in hands-on training of facilitators for the Blanket Exercise or the Hearts Exchanged program. 

Guidelines 

These guidelines on the Talking Circles are not intended to take the place of intensive Talking Circle instruction, but rather to allow you readers the opportunity to learn the basics that helps facilitate a general conversation within a circle. 

First a group leader will open the circle with a prayer. The circle is now in the hands of God. The Holy Spirit is essential when it comes to the work of the Christian Talking Circle. We call upon the Holy Spirit’s power, truth, and fruit.

The group leader, and most likely others within the circle, may bring an eagle feather, stones, or other meaningful objects which will be passed from person to person around the circle. We are encouraged to speak not only from the mind, but from the heart where we are free to share our innermost feelings if we so choose. Regardless of whether one brings a traditional teaching or a personal problem to the circle, all persons are valued, respected, and heard. 

But what the talking piece represents is both remarkable and simple. The simple beauty about a talking piece is its premise: Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak. Whoever does not have the talking piece is invited to listen. What’s remarkable about the talking piece is its ability to reduce anxiety, to invite participation, and increase trust among the people who use it. A person is free to say whatever is in their heart, without limitation, in the safe and comfortable knowledge that nobody will criticize or interrupt it.

The use of a talking piece reinforces the principle of equality in the circle

Talking circles are usually convened to resolve a problem, discuss an issue, or to focus on a question of interest to all members. 

Participants can indicate their desire to speak by raising their hand or waiting for the object to be passed to them around the circle. Generally, the person holding the object speaks and is the only one with the right to speak, even if she/he takes a long time to think about what to say and there’s an awkward pause in the conversation.

All comments are addressed directly to the question or the issue, not to comments another person has made. Both negative and positive comments about what anyone else has to say should be avoided.  Silence is acceptable. There must be no negative reactions to the phrase, “I pass.” The use of a talking piece reinforces the principle of equality in the circle: equal opportunity for all to participate and equal position of all who participate. Going around the circle in a systematic way invites each person to participate while avoiding people who might dominate the discussion.

One could use a stone as a talking piece where it could have a symbolic meaning: a stone representing our strong foundation in Christ. I remembered a story in John 8:1-11, it tells the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery and portrayed Jesus as a man full of mercy, love, grace, and forgiveness. In the story, the Pharisees dropped their stones and left. Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her, but tells her “Go now and leave your life of sin”. 

Talking Circles allow us to drop our stones of racism, fear, and judgment and transform our Talking Circle’s stone into establishing relationships, producing a circle full of nurturing and encouragement. It is a safe space that provides a hospitable atmosphere of grace, healing, catharsis, and forgiveness. It’s a place where we cultivate spaces for listening to one another and acknowledging our diversity.

"And I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh." - Ezekiel 11:19

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