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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Circle Process (Part 3) – Sally Campbell

CIRCLE PROCESS (Part 3)Sally Campbell

Talking Piece

Circles use a talking piece to assist their process. This may be a stone, a feather, a talking stick of some sort, or any other object chosen by participants to help them pace their discussion. The talking piece has symbolic value and should be chosen carefully, with the reasons for its choice  known to everyone in the circle. The keeper will have a talking piece; sometimes participants want to choose their own. Flexibility. In estate mediations, I often asked participants to bring an object they’d like as a talking piece. They’d bring something powerful, something they had really thought about. That could create a breakthrough simply by speaking from the heart about it and its significance; it often brought tears. The talking piece sings up the sacred, slows the process down, and promotes equality. Only the person holding the talking piece may speak. This simple approach gives space for a more introverted person to speak and invites a more extroverted person to listen more deeply. In some mysterious way, it helps people tap into their truth and express it elegantly, in ways the others can hear. It quietly deals with the problem of interrupting.

There is no pressure with a talking piece; it moves around the circle and if the person receiving it doesn’t wish to speak, it is passed to the next person. Because no one can interrupt to debate, rebut or question a statement made, participants learn to listen patiently. By the time the talking piece reaches the would-be debater, for instance, something has been learned through listening, and the speaker’s words are less charged, more reflective.  For many, the experience of deep listening moves them toward greater understanding of the other(s) and themselves, which may then lead to agreements settling the conflict. Often the general culture’s sign of “success” is the reaching of an agreement. Impatience about “getting this over with” is often a sign of anxiety and frustration. Insight can emerge from recognizing our lack of control over others. We can’t force people to agree with us. People sitting quietly together in a circle, speaking honestly about how they feel about difficult matters, can build understanding and clear the path for problem-solving down the road. This then opens the opportunity for healing to occur.

Sometimes family members or a couple in conflict have trouble talking to one another about difficult matters. Chances are they have differing styles of communication. If one person tends to override the other, or to interrupt, a talking piece can shift that behaviour. Despite the claims of the entrenched (“Oh, it’s just the way I am. You’ll have to live with it”), it is never too late to change our behaviours!  Especially the ones that keep us stuck.


In circles, decisions are made by consensus. The goal is to have everyone satisfied with the outcome. It does not mean compromising interests or squelching dissent in the rush for agreement. It involves working carefully and respectfully with all the interests and concerns in the circle, and seeking ways that accommodate key interests. 

In circle process, the focus is not upon the outcome, but rather upon good process and relationships between and among parties. Emphasis is upon the building of healthy relationship, and sometimes the way there is very difficult and painful. Participants learn to trust in the collective wisdom of the circle for answers, and when attention has been paid to the values and principles of the circle, creative and powerful outcomes can emerge.

Consensus does not necessarily mean unanimity. It is the responsibility of dissenting voices in circles to explain their concerns, and for others to listen deeply to them. “Circles don’t dismiss or minimize differences, but they don’t allow differences to become insurmountable barriers either. To build a consensus, we identify areas of disagreement and give them serious consideration, and then we use this fuller awareness of differences to make our final agreements more inclusive, hence stronger”. (Peacemaking Circles: Pranis, Stuart & Wedge)

Sometimes the circle will settle with an agreement because everyone can “live with it”, and it incorporates everyone’s interests as fully as possible, even though it may not have been the first choice of everyone in the group. This is called a “working consensus”, and it exemplifies the idea of a “world that works for everyone”. (Source unknown.)

This is not easy work. It is about having difficult conversations to get to the heart of things. A goal of consensus in circles is to develop a way forward that doesn’t just settle the presenting conflict, but also attends to the deeper issues and promotes healing and closure.

Circles belong to all of us. We all have ancestors who have sat together around a fire, in a circle, sharing stories, belonging to each other. Circle processes are not a panacea for all ills. They are one way to bring people together in respect and understanding. Sometimes, that is precisely what is needed.

Author: TIG

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