Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility


Talking Stick

the opening of space usually includes gathering in a large circle, whole group, a number of times throughout the process of a meeting or conference event. when gathered, it is customary to use something like a talking stick to manage the conversation.

the simple rule that goes with the stick, or whatever other object might be chosen is... respect. if you do not have the stick, you listen with respect. if you do have the stick, you speak with respect. the former usually means silence. the latter often can mean that you pay attention to time and what is most important. the latter also means that you can invite a closing comment from 200 or more people, with only one hour of meeting time remaining, and they can all have their moment, and still finish on time.

it is also customary to use tibetan tinsha (temple bells) to bring attention back to the circle, center, quiet at various times during the meeting... when the whole group reconvenes in the large circle. in the closing circle, and at other times, it is my habit to use the bells as the talking 'object'. to date, hundreds of people in something like a dozen countries have received, spoken, and passed those bells.

in short (half-day or less) meetings, i sometimes take all the topic-posting pages down off the wall and roll them up into a tube. i pass the tube as the talking stick, and invite the final comments to be about how, where, why, when we are going to take this work with us.

a microphone is also an effective, modern-day talking stick.

here's an innovative approach to the talking stick object selection/creation... from gerard muller in denmark.

A conversation with a collegue about the use of the talking stick inspired me to send this mail about one detail of it.

Instead of bringing one myself, I now ask the sponsor of an event to think of one. After explaining what we use it for, I say something like the following:

I would like to ask you to choose the object, and to explain why you chose it (or else decide who should do this). Ideally, the object symbolises the direction, vision or process you have started. It could be an old object which your organisation has which can also be connected to the future.

For an Open Space I do coming Monday, which is for an organisation which works well (but is much like a machine) and needs to go through an intensive change process, I added " It could be an object which can symbolise the values and strenghts which the organisation tradtionally has, but which has the flexibility and responsiveness to the environment which you envision.".

The particular CEO the next day wrote back "Thank you for the challenge! If I can handle that in accordance with your demands, the rest of the day will be easy!"

I feel that leaving this up to the sponsor has a couple of advantages, the most important one seems to be that if chosen well, the object (and the story with which it is introduced) is better than anything I could bring along - and most clients really make an effort choosing something. The choice sometimes reveals things I have not noticed or understood about the situation, and it is also fun because of the creativity which emerges.

Some examples of talking "sticks" I have experienced: a 5000-year old flintstone, a mountai crystal, a Lego helicopter (leadership was the issue), a branch with apple blossom (the future strategy for apple and pear producers), the statuette of the sower ( symbol of an agricultural university), the declaration of the rights of children (librarians of children’s books), a Nokia cellphone (creating a network). Most interesting - and powerful - however I feel are the stories to introduce the objects with, rather than the objects themselves. It's probably the combination that does it.

In situations where it is unclear who should open the meeting introducing the talking stick provides an opportunity for a second person to have a clear tole. For example in the case of a university which was making its strategic plan in Open Space, it was clear the Chairman of the Board would open the meeting. However the Rector in reality had most of the responsability (and work). So I asked the rector to find the object and introduce it.

I look forward to hear any other experiences or examples.

Greetings from Denmark,

Gerard Muller, Open Space Institute Denmark