The Power of the Talking Stick

Following up on the last blog about the power of being real, I wanted to share an exercise that I give as an assignment to couples that I work with. You may have heard of it before. It’s called the talking stick exercise. The talking stick exercise is one of the most basic and fundamental and profound tools that we can use in relationships. And it goes like this: something comes up in our relationships, something we need to talk to about, and we tend to get into an argument or fight about. In other words, the situation usually tends to escalate in some way. Instead of allowing it to escalate, we should turn to the talking stick exercise. And this simply means that someone is going to be the speaker and someone is going to be the listener.

We give the speaker something to hold and this represents the fact that we are putting all of our attention on them and none on ourselves. In this exercise, whatever the subject is, we can fully hear someone out without formulating or generating our own response. And we can really understand what is going on in their insides; what they’re experiencing. So, we say to ourselves, “Alright, I’m ready to listen to this issue, whether it’s with money, with kids, whatever it is, I really want listen.” And then we have the speaker tell us anything they can possibly imagine about the issue and let them totally empty their tank about it. And then we pay close attention to what they are saying, without pushing back, without judging, without anything else, so that they get to fully get out whatever it is that is going on with them.

A great question the listener can ask at the end of the exercise is “Is there anything else you are feeling about this?” The listener can ask this multiple times to make sure the speaker has nothing left to say. Moreover, depending on our skill level, if we do not understand something, we can ask about it without pushing back. For example, this is like, “You mentioned this, and I don’t really understand what your concern is about it; can you help me understand what your concern is about that?” and go a little bit deeper. The idea is if we can allow somebody to be fully heard with no feedback, then solutions and answers and feelings of closeness and compassion will undoubtedly follow.

Once we are all completely done with this, once somebody feels like they have completely been heard and we feel like we completely understand them, we can either take a break and wait for an hour to let the conversation digest, or we might be ready to switch turns and hand the talking stick to the other person and essentially switch roles. Remember, this is not a solve-each-other’s-problems’ situation and it takes discipline to do this.

Finally, once both people have shared, it’s really helpful to give the issue some space. For instance, let the conversation sit until the next day and then continue with another talking stick conversation. You will be amazed at how the energy has shifted or at how differently you view the idea after hearing from your partner.

It’s very hard to listen to someone fully without completely understanding them. This is because we all have good will, we all have the best interest at heart, and want to ask questions. And it’s also very hard to not be moved after you yourself have been heard, because it can often be difficult to have to hear yourself out fully.

While it may be hard, once you have mastered the art of the using the talking stick, it is an incredibly profound, powerful, life-changing exercise.