facilitating & hosting

Playing with talking pieces

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. ~ From John Fox’s poem, When Someone Deeply Listens To You


Listening and circle go hand-in-hand, and many aspects of the process The Circle Way are designed to bring forward a deeper quality of our listening. It is in the check-in, where we listen to each voice at the beginning of the circle. It is in the practices of circle, “Listen with attention”. It is in the agreements, “We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity”. It is the form of council known as “talking piece council”, often used as part of check-in, check-out, and whenever there is a desire to slow down the conversation, collect all voices and contributions, and be able to speak without interruption. Talking pieces can be anything – a pen, a watch, a leaf that travels around. They can be created in the moment when we need to slow down and listen to each other, “Let’s send this pen around and hear each person’s reflections on what we should do next”. Or they can be thoughtfully planned in advance to support the purpose of a circle. I sometimes think of them as “listening pieces” as they are so effective at shifting us into a pattern of better listening.


I’ve been experimenting and paying attention to the use of a talking piece. Some of this paying attention has been in the movement of the piece. Sometimes it gets passed from each person, flowing around the rim of the circle like a ribbon weaving us all together. Sometimes the talking piece is in the centre and people take it to speak and then return it to the centre, ready for the next person anywhere in the circle to pick it up next, creating a random pattern of who is speaking around the rim. Sometimes, when it is a light, softer piece like a koosh or stuffed toy, we toss it across the circle to the person who wants to speak next. Sometimes the host starts and it travels sun-wise from there. Sometimes the host invites whoever is ready to begin by reaching in and picking up the piece. Sometimes the guardian goes first so they can focus on ‘guardianing’ the rest of that round. Sometimes, particularly in story councils, the piece travels around from the host, stopping with the person who is ready to begin. Each of these has a different impact on the overall timing, the pace, and then also on our listening.


Where I have gotten particularly curious lately is with the specific objects used as a talking piece. At a recent circle, with a team working to transform their patterns of conflict and communication to new, healthy practices, I went in with the idea that, after our check-in, we would use the same talking piece to create the synergy of the same piece travelling around the circle, connecting each person during a difficult round. After a couple of people spoke, the next person asked if they could change the talking piece. I answered from my intuition – what felt right in the moment – Yes. They chose a different object from the centre, one that helped them share their feelings. A few people later the piece changed again, this time to a heart to help that person express what was on their heart, and so on it went with people changing the piece as they needed to. I observed how allowing the ability to choose the piece helped each person take care of themself (ask for what you need), and also helped them contribute to the purpose of the circle. It also helped us collective tend to the emotion and energy of the circle – a release of laughter when a playful object was picked up, or quiet strength sent to the centre when the heart was picked up, or shifting the energy into to a new direction with the choice of another piece.



At another circle with a group from an architecture and design firm, where circle is a newer format for them, we were using a story council to reflect on what they had been learning from some recent projects. The talking piece I brought for this circle was a small Hoberman sphere, which is an isokinetic structure that resembles a geodesic dome and is capable of folding down to a fraction of its normal size by the scissor-like action of its joints. It helped to break the ice of using a talking piece and because of the kinetic nature of the piece several people played with it as they told their story, helping to release some nervous energy.


At a quarterly circle, each person brings an object that they place into the centre during their check-in. A tradition was created spontaneously where during one circle a person asked for their object to be used as the talking piece for a round of council. Now each time, before our two rounds of council and check-out, we ask who would like their object to be the one that travels around for that round.


So simple – the idea of using a talking piece. But also so much creative possibility, experimentation, and learning how it helps create the conditions for listening with attention and speaking with intention.


Interested in learning more about the practice of The Circle Way?

Join us August 23 – 28, 2017 for The Circle Way Practicum on Whidbey Island, Washington.

View the invitation here