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Inclusive Meeting Practices: Talking Sticks and Mutual Invitation

A common problem in meetings is that a few are verbally aggressive while others rarely or ever speak. The failure to include the quiet robs groups of the best insights. Some indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest meet this challenge by using talking sticks to build inclusive conversations. In tribal meetings, the Tsimshian use beautifully carved lengths of wood to command authority and invite others to speak. The person who holds the talking stick is granted authority to speak. That person speaks, then offers the stick to another, who now has the power to offer his or her thoughts. After each person is finished speaking, the stick is handed over to another. The process is repeated until all present have had an opportunity to speak.  Those with years of wisdom speak, as do the young. The talking stick can be an effective means to ensure the voices of all are heard in many groups numbering less than twenty.

Objects other than a stick can serve the same purpose as a talking stick: a stone, paperweight, candle, or goblet. I bought a twelve-inch wooden rod at Home Depot, painted it barn red, and carry it in my facilitator’s tool kit to use as a talking stick.  A talking stick builds democratic participation.  It helps ensure that all voices are heard.

Mutual Invitation

One of the most powerful tools I have encountered for building inclusive conversations is Mutual Invitation.” Developed by Eric Law, an American Episcopal priest, Mutual Invitation recognizes that communication styles and patterns vary across cultures.

Mutual Invitation accommodates these differences. It empowers the shy and constrains the verbose. It recognizes that everyone has unique insights from life experience and culture. Mutual Invitation encourages democratic participation, regardless of cultural background or power differential. It is respectful, empowers those who are reserved and cultivates deeper listening

In Mutual Invitation, the facilitator speaks first, then invites another person to speak. The facilitator usually chooses someone not seated directly beside himself or herself. Going around a circle inhibits listening because the person who expects to speak next is thinking about what to say instead of listening to what is being said. Short-circuiting that cycle helps the group listen to one another instead of merely preparing their responses.

Once a person is invited to speak, that person can choose to speak, to pass or to pass for the moment. No matter which of these options is chosen, she or he invites another person to speak when finished.  In the end, the group leader offers anyone who passed for the moment another opportunity to speak. The process continues until everyone who wishes to speak has done so.

Eric Law emphasizes the importance of the language of invitation. Inviting a person allows each person to participate in the power of facilitation. If you invite me to speak next, you are exercising power to choose me.  I have the power to respond or not.  I also have the power to extend an invitation to the next person.  The act of inviting is a subtle, important type of power. See Eric H.F. Law. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb. pp. 79-88.

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