maple leaf 5-5. Circle Talks

I like to use an example of kayaking down a river when I compare how mainstream society and some Native people conduct dialogue. Mainstream dialogue is like traveling the rapids in a river. A person pauses in an eddy and someone else takes off. The person leaving hooks into what the previous speaker was talking about. Dialogue is fast with people who want to talk, waiting respectfully to cut in.

In a Native circle talk, a talking stick is passed around and only the person holding the talking stick can speak. This causes the pace to slow down because everyone knows who the next speaker will be. This creates a different atmosphere in the conversation, everyone has time to think of what they are going to say, as well as listen closely to what the speaker is talking about. The person who receives the talking stick does not have to "hook" into what the previous speaker was talking about.

two types of dialogue

An important shift also takes place between the head and heart. Mainstream dialogue has a focus in the head (logical), whereas the circle talk has a focus in the heart (emotional). By combining the two methods where time is spent both in mainstream dialogue and in circle talks, an environment is created where everyone has an opportunity to have input. This input often involves both a head and heart component. It has a strong tendency to "refocus" the discussions as to what is important. Thus by combining the two world views, something stronger than either one is created.

Circle Talks

Here are some general guidelines for conducting circle talks. Please check with how they are actually conducted in the local area, as there are differences between Native nations.

In its simplest form a circle talk:

  1. is done in a complete circle,
  2. only the person holding the stick talks, all the rest listen,
  3. the stick is passed around in a clockwise direction,
  4. a person talks until they are finished, being respectful of time,
  5. the circle talk is complete when everyone has had the opportunity to speak,
  6. a person may pass the stick without speaking, if they so wish,
  7. if desired, the stick may be passed around again,
  8. what is said in the circle stays in the circle,
  9. a circle is used to discuss issues of importance,
  10. is extremely respectful of everyone as individuals and what they have to say.

Some additional issues:

  1. Before a circle talk is conducted, it is usually a good idea to review the protocol for the circle (if this is the first time this group of people are doing a circle talk together.)
  2. It's wise to be trained by someone who is comfortable doing circle talks.
  3. The circle must be complete, it shouldn't be a semi-circle, etc. People should not be left out.
  4. An object is passed around. Native people use a feather, rock, or other object that has some significance. If no significant object is available, a common practice is have someone in the group donate something of significance to them, such as a bracelet.
  5. Only the person holding the object is allowed to talk. If a person is talking and is in pain, body language is used to send a supporting message. The people beside the person may want to touch the hurting person's arm. In some circles, there may be a pause while a friend hugs the person. Variations of how circles operate occur. All do so in a respectful manner.
  6. Some circles have a person who is "responsible for conducting the circle", others don't. This person may, or may not, smudge, or do some other ceremonial activities. They may want to only use a feather, or other object that has been blessed.
  7. To "get out of the circle talk" to ask a question, some people put the stick down and so can ask questions which allows anyone to answer. This is a sensitive issue because others say it's breaking the spirit of a circle talk.
  8. Circle talks are powerful as they usually focus on emotional issues and so go directly to the heart.
  9. The underlying concept is to be respectful. Circle talks are conducted in different ways. The "simplest form of a circle talk" {outlined on the previous page is a good starting point}.
  10. Remember, it's a good idea to learn how to do circle talks from someone who is experienced, and there are many variations.

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