As educators, we are always searching for approaches that allow our students to express themselves freely and effectively; particularly, when discussing topics that elicit strong emotions or opinions.
Talking circles offer this kind of benefit. To facilitate one well, however, requires understanding some essential, long-established protocols. The following resource is designed to help faculty grow more comfortable and confident in incorporating talking circles within the courses that they teach.
The Purpose of Talking Circles
Talking circles are based on the sacred tradition of sharing circles. Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have used such circles to communicate, solve problems, and provide healing since time immemorial. Circles are also a reliable pedagogical tool when a discussion topic arises that has no right or wrong answer, or when students need to share their feelings or thoughts.
As an educational activity, the purpose of a talking circle is to encourage dialogue among participants, whereby each voice is heard, respected, and valued equally – with no one contribution being more or less valid than another. In a talking circle, participants practice active listening skills, as the intention is not to comment on what anyone else has said, but to reflect on those sharings and to focus on processing one’s own ideas and feelings.
When individuals can bravely communicate their point of view without fear of interruption or judgment, a nuanced sense of community is generated - one that is not always easy to replicate through usual classroom discourses. Because each participant has had their turn to speak and everyone’s perspective has been given space, the learning environment becomes richer and more engaging.
Guidelines and Protocols
● Participants sit in a circle with the facilitator. It is respectful for all members of the circle to introduce themselves before more formal discussions begin.
● The facilitator determines the direction of the circle. This usually depends on the Indigenous territory in which the discussion is taking place (e.g. on the Peterborough campus, circles may move sunwise or clockwise, in respect for local Anishinaabe protocols).
● The facilitator discloses the origins of talking circles and describes why they continue to be used in modern settings (e.g. classrooms, group counselling, restorative justice, etc.). It is strongly recommended that the facilitator have some previous experience as a participant in talking circles. They should also connect with an Indigenous Knowledge expert and/or institutional support (e.g. Indigenous pedagogy specialist), before leading their first circle. The facilitator should be mindful that circles engage participants wholistically - mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As such, there may be unanticipated and sometimes disconcerting responses from individuals. An integral role of the facilitator is to hold that space and ensure safety on each of these levels.
● Sometimes, the facilitator (or a helper) will open the circle with a smudge. This may be repeated at the end of the circle during closing comments. Again, if inexperienced with the process/protocols, it is recommended that the facilitator seek out guidance before leading a smudge. An alternative may be to make Medicines and Smudge available for those individuals who wish to partake.
● The facilitator establishes the discussion topic and reviews the expectations for the circle talk with participants. For example:
○ All contributions are equally important.
○ Use “I-statements” (e.g. “I feel...”) to express thoughts and opinions.
○ All comments are related directly to the question or topic of consideration, not addressed to another member of the circle or to what they choose to share.
○ It is important that members of the circle listen respectfully (i.e. “listen with ears and hearts”) to the individual whose turn it is to speak.
○ Whomever is speaking is encouraged to share bravely and authentically (i.e. “speak from the heart”), to own their feelings, perceptions, and questions. This is an opportunity for participants to speak their truth and communicate more of who they really are.
○ Shared communications in circle should always be kept in confidence. The facilitator may consider stressing this point with the group, to ensure that “what is shared in circle remains in circle.”
● Determine what the circle will use as a talking piece (an object used specifically for the purpose of identifying who is sharing). Usually an item from nature is preferred, such as a stick or feather, but any object can be used. The facilitator may also share about the cultural origins and significance of talking pieces.
● When the talking piece is passed from one participant to the next, it indicates that the current speaker is finished sharing and that it is someone else’s turn to speak (movement of the object follows each person individually around the circle).
● Whomever is holding the talking piece may share as much or as little as they wish, and is free to express themselves in any way that is comfortable (e.g. by sharing a story, a personal experience, by using examples, etc.).
● Those who have had their turn to speak or who are waiting for their turn have the responsibility to listen and must relinquish the need to evaluate, judge or compare. Participants should be fully engaged with the speaker and refrain from side talk, cross talk or interrupting (it is also recommended that devices be turned off and stowed away).
● It is acceptable for participants to pass their turn - silence can be an appropriate response.
● The circle ends when every member has had their turn to share. Often the facilitator will close the circle with a short reflection on the discussion topic and may include some reassuring words for participants.
● Always be mindful of regional protocols. If uncertain, consider asking for guidance.
● When facilitating a talking circle for the first time, or when working with larger groups, it is recommended that a helper be present to assist as the discussion progresses.
● In circle, participants are asked to reflect deeply, often on very provocative topics. Doing so can (expectedly) evoke powerful emotions or cause memories of difficult experiences to surface during sharing. This occurs commonly as part of the circle process, and it is strongly advised that someone such as an Elder, counselor, or student support staff be available to assist individuals if/when this occurs.
● Respect the individual needs of the participants and ensure that everyone feels safe to engage.
● As a facilitator, be sure to take care of yourself. Leading a talking circle can be both mentally and emotionally taxing. Seek out opportunities to debrief with your colleagues and be sure that the appropriate time is taken to decompress.
● Consider assigning a reflective writing task to help consolidate students’ learning in circle.
Written by: Mitch Huguenin (with kind support from the First Peoples House of Learning)