Using a Talking Stick Is More Than Speaking Uninterrupted

The first time I served on a jury, the judge announced that I would be its foreperson. I had no idea why I’d been chosen and wondered if it was a random selection, like the ball that pops out from a lottery machine, or if it had anything to do with the details I furnished on the juror questionnaire.

After two full days of hearing testimony and a third deliberating, we pronounced our verdict, were thanked for our service, and dismissed from duty. Back in the jury room, our group plus two alternate jurors who had had to sit out the trial in a separate room decided to head to a nearby restaurant. While we were decompressing, lawyers from both sides of the case entered the restaurant and came right over to thank us for our service. I remember asking if they had any idea why I’d been selected to be the foreperson. They asked what I did for work. To my response, they said that educators are often chosen because we are known to help groups collaborate and have integrity.

I recently read an article describing the “talking stick” that Senator Susan Collins used to help colleagues from both parties to negotiate an end to the government shutdown. The article stated that the ‘talking stick’ is a strategy that teachers use to support students to share their thoughts uninterrupted. While it might sound like a promising strategy to help students voice their thoughts, the news also reported that Senator Lamar Alexander threw the stick at Senator Mark Warner breaking a chip off of Collin’s glass elephant in the process. Maybe that happened by accident, or to express his disdain for the talking stick process, or it was a bullying tactic.

If we lined up every educator, none of us would say that using a ‘talking stick’ or assigning one foreperson or facilitator to a group is a guarantee for collaborative success. Real collaboration is a complex undertaking. In the jury experience, for example, we had to listen to the testimony and decide as a group whether the defendant was innocent or guilty of 6 different charges. We had to first hear the testimony, use what we each heard to understand the context of the crimes that had supposedly been committed, draw from our individual beliefs about what we heard, and more. Our collaborative task required a completely different set of skills- a willingness to deliberate cooperatively- that is, to listen to other perspectives, let go of any preconceived notions about each other without prejudice or bias, understand the laws regarding this particular case, and more. My work as a foreperson and our jury’s work depended on all of these tasks and variables working and, most of all, a commitment by everyone to the process of working together.

Throwing a stick, that is having different reactions to any group task, is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it’s followed with helping each other to examine the various perspectives that we all hold and be committed to collaborating together. That’s what happened when I was the foreperson. People had opinions that were expressed in all sorts of ways.  But, we also agreed to work these out by hearing various points of view and factoring these into our work to make a decision. Our willingness to come to an agreement by drawing from different perspectives represents the characteristics of a true democracy at work in our classrooms, courts, government, and more. We can turn deaf ears when people use a talking stick, or throw the stick in defiance, or use it to lord power over others, or even refuse to use it when it’s our turn. The absence of our being committed to working together, co-examine our differences, and come to an agreement means paying lip service to one of the most sacred tenets of our Republic.



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