Group-based open-ended expression of group members’ thoughts, feelings, experiences, on a chosen theme or topic. Whereas Socratic Dialogues aim for consensus, Talking Circles aim at maximizing the individual voices, views, and expressions of each individual as an autonomous source and perspective, with an over-arching aim of understanding the validity of each of multiple perspectives.
How does this work?
Members sit in a circle with the facilitator. The facilitator will typically begin the session by grounding everyone and creating a contemplative, calm, meditative atmosphere, zone, or group dynamic through some sort of brief meditative exercise. The facilitator then describes the “intentions” that are essential for the Circle to work, such as:
mindful listening: fully attentive, non-judgmental listening with an open-mind, noticing internal dialogue and internal reactive attitudes, but not feeding them, not imagining ways to counter or add to what the other is saying, intending to understand and empathize, minimizing body language and facial gestures that might be at odds with the speaker’s words, etc.
mindful speaking: speaking truthfully and authentically from what you know or at least differentiating between what you know and do not know, thinking as you speak spontaneously, speaking slowly and conscientiously and respectfully, not engaging in cross-talk, not relying on canned answers rehearsed while others were speaking
The facilitator announces the topic, whether anew or a pre-selected topic, and may either begin by speaking to it from his or her own perspective, or may encourage another to speak, so as not to overly influence the direction of the group, depending on the facilitator’s sense of which approach might best apply to the specific group. Whoever speaks or can speak must have the “Talking Stick”, a ritualistic device that everyone agrees to treat with respect as the instrument that confers the right to speak to its holder. This may be any object suitable to the task, such as a peace pipe, a gong stick, a stone or small branch, etc. The first round typically proceeds by each speaker handing the Talking Stick to the person adjacent to them, moving through the group in one direction. Anyone may choose to pass if they are not ready to speak. Once the Stick has made one round, persons who have not spoken yet may elect to speak next, and if not, anyone may put up their hand when the next person is speaking, and ideally the speaker will hand them the Stick when they finish speaking.
Ideally, once one hand is up, no others should be raised until the Stick has been passed at least once. All members should be mindful of the need to avoid dominating the discussion and sharing the Stick. At any point, the facilitator might interject and temporarily retrieve the Stick in order to make a meta-comment, in the event the process is inadvertently being derailed or veering off course in any way. The process ends when no member requests the Stick, at which point the facilitator takes the Stick, makes some summary comments about the wisdom of the process, and closes with another brief meditative exercise.
How long does it take?
The shortest time I have experienced with this process was about two hours, but, depending on the size and interest of the group as well as the complexity of the concept under analysis, it could take an hour or an entire day.
Who decides the topic, theme, or focus?
This varies flexibly and depends. Sometimes the facilitator offers the topic or theme; sometimes the group discusses topics and decides collectively, depending on the nature of the group electing to experience this process.
Who can benefit from this?
Anyone can benefit from this, so long as they are sincerely—authentic motivation matters—interested in deepening their understanding of what they themselves and others think about any one of a number of topics that are generally important from the perspective of what it means to be human, such as personal identity, faith, self-doubt, suffering, illness, death, loss, and so on. While any group of individuals can benefit from this, even in the absence of any other factor that constitutes the group apart from its interest in Talking Circles for their own sake, Talking Circles can be particularly useful for groups constituted by some shared factor(s) apart from any interest in Talking Circles for their own sake. For example, if the group is defined by a common issue, such as wellness (nurses, therapists, healers, etc.), then there may be a topic of interest to members of each of those groups, such as holistic health, dis-ease, suffering, empathy, or burn-out.
If the group is facing a particular conflict within the group, for example, an organization, small business, or other group project facing internal, interpersonal difficulties, then a topic of interest might be respect, collegiality, or shared purposes. Any number of classes might benefit from this exercise, such as a class in Public Speaking, Conflict Resolution, Interpersonal Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, Humanities, etc. As with Socratic Dialogues, Talking Circles are rewarding in themselves, philosophically enlightening, and typically bonding, so they are particularly useful for group dynamics issues, team building, and the like. Also, anyone interested in experimenting with the idea of consulting a philosophical practitioner/counselor for some individual issue or problem can get a good sense of what a particular philosophical counselor is like and whether they sense the likelihood of developing a synergy with that counselor in private sessions by engaging with that practitioner in his or her role as facilitator of a philosophical Talking Circle.