The Talking Piece: A Story

Much of the power of the circle process resides in the talking piece – the object that we pass in order from person to person around the circle as we invite each person to speak or to pass.

As a trainer, I often get questions from teachers and other circle-keepers about the talking piece: What kind of object should I use?  Which way should the talking piece be sent around?  Who should get it first?  What should I do when students don’t respect the talking piece?  And especially what should I, the keeper, do when students are being disrespectful and I don’t have the talking piece? Should I speak up anyway, though it will be out of turn?    
Since circles are all about sharing stories, I’d like to answer some of these questions by sharing one of my own:

Marieke van Woerkom 

A few weeks back, I was coaching a group of middle school teachers on keeping circles in advisory. We were seated in a circle, using a talking piece ourselves. Several teachers asked me what they should do when students don’t respect the talking piece – that is, when students talk out of turn or otherwise disrespect the careful process we use in circle. 
Rather than providing an answer, I sent the talking piece around, starting with the person to my left.  I asked the group to talk about what had been happening in their advisory circles when it came to group dynamics, buy-in from students, and respect for the talking piece.  How did they, as circle keepers, use the talking piece, and how did they respond when students weren’t honoring the process?  
Teachers described what kind of talking piece they used and shared insights on how this seemed to affect students’ relationship to the circle. As we shared our experiences, one teacher began to wonder if the talking piece she had been using was too bright and tactile, distracting students from the focus of the circle. Perhaps picking another piece might help students with their focus. Another teacher felt that his circle’s talking piece, an oar representing a boating trip the group had been on at the start of the year, worked very well. It was meaningful, and reminded students of the team spirit they had built together. (A side benefit of oars is that they can’t easily become projectiles, a hazard we sometimes have to deal with in circles.) 
A third teacher described her talking piece, which was a gift from her daughter. She had shared with her students the story of her daughter’s relationship to this object, so students understood how much value this piece had to her.  As a result, she felt her students treated the item with respect. 
By listening to the stories, teachers came to the realization that the kind of talking piece we use can affect how students value it.  When it was my turn, I shared that my own talking piece is a stuffed turtle that belongs to my 3-year-old nephew Darius.  I tell students in my circles a little bit about who Darius is and how he lends me his turtle to use at school.  I find the fact that my talking piece belongs to a 3-year-old allows students, most of them teenagers who might not always be the most empathetic, to treat it well.  I also use the turtle to talk about what it might take for us to work together in a way that can encourage us to come out of our shells. When someone drops the turtle or tugs at it too hard, students may respond with a gasp, express concern or jump in to say things like “Ooh, that’s going to make Darius unhappy.” Darius’ presence is surely felt in my circles, and often adds a note of tender concern. 

Before sending the turtle around again, the teacher to my right wanted to ask a question.  Earlier he had talked about some of the boys in his class who had a hard time sitting still and waiting for the taking piece to come around.  Now he insisted on asking his question, while I was holding the talking piece.  I continued my story. Then I sent the turtle around the circle again, starting with the person on my left – even though the teacher with the question (on my right) had clearly wanted me to give him the talking piece.  As I let go of the piece, he blurted out, impatiently: “That’s what I wanted to ask” (that is, which way to send the talking piece).  “And by sending the talking piece to your left you answered my question.  You always sent the talking piece in one direction, and one direction only. That’s dogmatic and I think that’s awful.” 
As soon as he’d shared that, he added, somewhat taken aback: “I guess I’m like one of my students who can’t wait for the talking piece to come around.” 
Then, we both sat quietly, listening, as the talking piece went around the circle. Some teachers talked about how they send the talking piece both ways around the circle. Others shared more thoughts about how they create buy-in, engage students and build circle skills. As the talking piece was passed from person to person, the teacher had to sit with his outburst.  I was aware of how I myself had to sit with the discomfort of what the teacher had said and how I had responded. 
When the teacher finally got the talking piece again, he thanked his colleagues for sharing their thoughts about the direction of the talking piece.  It had been useful.  I could see that he had calmed down significantly as he passed me the piece.  I apologized for sending the piece one direction only that morning. I added that I thought I’d sent it different directions on other occasions with this group, and possibly even earlier that day, but that I wasn’t sure.  I hadn’t paid close attention. 
In this particular instance, I explained that even though the teacher had felt he needed to say something right in the moment and was very vocal about it, this didn’t mean that there weren’t other people in the circle who may also have wanted to share, but had waited their turn quietly, knowing that the talking piece would eventually make it back to them. I explained that I try to “listen” to all voices in the circle, the louder ones and the quieter ones. I connected this to a larger societal context, in which we tend to listen to and acknowledge louder voices more than quieter ones. Circles have the power to provide equal opportunity of voice, and I believe in upholding and supporting this opportunity however I can.
I then shared an additional reason for sending the talking piece around in only one direction when giving a particular set of prompts.  If in this case I had gone one way, and then changed directions when asking for follow up comments, connections, thoughts and feelings, the teacher to my right would have had a chance to speak twice in a very short span of time, while the teacher to my left would have had to wait almost two full go rounds before having another chance to share.  I simply didn't think that was fair and have found it can interrupt the flow of the circle. 
One of the things circles provide us with is space for reflection.  Because we may not have the opportunity to respond in the moment, we are forced to sit with our feelings, our reflections and reactions.  I find there to be much learning in this, and I’ve heard from others, adults and students alike, that with time they learn to appreciate this too.  The teacher and I shared a few uncomfortable moments in that circle, but I think we both gained insight from the experience – and helped others gain insight too.

Marieke van Woerkom has worked in the field of cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, violence prevention and human rights for 20 years. She has been a Morningside Center trainer and coach since 2006, using SEL to strengthen school communities. Having seen the power of restorative circles around the world, Marieke is now helping lead our effort to bring this transformative process to public schools through Morningside Center's Restore360 Program.