Native Americans can teach us how to create the best teams


It has been my tradition for the last 15 years – whenever engaged as a leader in a team dynamic focused on generative change – to call forth and intermittently employ the magical attributes of the “Talking Circle”.

My initial exposure to this ancient tradition was over 20 years ago, during a period under the tutelage of a Native American man and his wife up in the Catskill Mountains in New York.

During those Talking Circles, a group of us would sit around, trying to find a comfortable position on the crusted soil to endure what sometimes lasted for four to six hours. The instructions were simple and few. Each person had a turn with the talking stick. Once possessed, your charge was simply to share what was in your heart; which we all understood as a code for, “whatever you want to speak about”. There was to be no cross-talk, as well-meaning as it might have been, so one could speak without fear of interruption. Finally, the speaker could go on for as long as they needed to.

This setup exercised two fundamental skills. For the speaker, the ability to verbally express themselves and the ability to listen to one’s own thoughts in real time; for the non-speaker, the ability to listen for long stretches of time while allowing thoughts to come and go without the need to act, verbally in this case, on one’s impulses, or hold onto thoughts or ideas considered precious.

As I began to transport the construct from the rural ruggedness of the Catskill Mountains to the linear worlds of academia and corporations, I was struck by its adaptability. Let me explain.

In the academic setting, one of the most pervasive challenges for the instructor (leader) is to eliminate the authority students project onto them. Unconsciously, they will tend to see the leader authority figure as the parent – which is problematic, as it serves as a buffer between real and non-real information. The leader is not the parent, they are simply a human being assuming a role in a team setting that holds no higher value, intrinsically, then any other role.

The colossal communication challenge facing our species is to overcome the inability to discern between present and non-present information.

When I see my parent in a leader, and act through that filter, I am no longer able to respond adequately to what is happening right in front of me. The inefficacies and waste that occur in the corporate world due to these missed connections can be mammoth. Equally so when I, as a leader, see the members of my team as my children.

Behaviours and habits shift due to a shift in action, not a shift in thought alone. If thought does not manifest into action, the isolated information in one’s own head will not provide enough energy to shift behaviour ritualistically. One of the reasons why action tends to be a more powerful change agent than thought is that manifested thought takes a large outflow of energy and commitment. The other reason is that action instantly creates a relationship with the outside world, and with it comes all the information and power that creates the power of momentum, the momentum of thought, others’ actions and eventually your own reaction, etc.

Back to the circle talk…

To efficiently use the circle talk in academic and professional settings, I’ve had to adjust some of the parameters from the original Catskill version.

1) We all have a specific time to talk (as opposed to unlimited). This could be 5, 10 or 15 minutes, or any time period you feel makes sense for the given circumstances.

2) There is a timekeeper who raises their hand one minute before the end of the allotted time. The speaker acknowledges that they’ve seen the hand and begin to wrap up what they are saying. Who the timekeeper is should shift a few times.

3) The no cross-talk rule still applies.

4) As a leader, I am usually the first person to talk, in order to model the spirit of the talking. In business, generally, there is a cost/benefit relationship – it is no different in circle talk. It is valuable if it costs you something.

5) There can be no referencing or referring back to what was said by others in the group before you spoke – which helps maintain the “I” perspective and also preserves the power of your words. So often in our verbal interactions, I utter something, then you utter something which changes my words. It is not often that I get to verbally express myself and it can live in the space without anyone else’s influence quickly dripping all over it.

5) Often I start the talk by posing a question such as, “What am I presently working on in my life?” or “Ways I am seeking to evolve/improve and the challenges that come with it.”

6) You may choose to leave it free-form, though – especially if circle talk becomes a daily, weekly or monthly ritualistic way of checking in with the team.

There are many hypotheses on why this circle is so effective:

1)    The removal of status. Remember, actions rather than thoughts are the agents of change. The action of the allotted time (which is a synonym for space) being equal for everyone – regardless of their role outside the circle – starts to dilute the biases and inefficiencies that come from status.

2)    Being listened to and heard (a synonym for seen) without fear of interruption is something usually enjoyed only by those with perceived power. It is helpful to train everyone in an organization to embody their power, which is usually conditioned out of us as children in most upbringings. (More on that in a later blog.)

3)    If I can actually accomplish the task of listening to others without forming an agenda, “what I’ll do/say when it is my turn to speak and when I have the power,” I will soon understand the incredible power of the verb to listen. With this power, the ability to listen not just with your ears, but also with your eyes, and all your senses and intuition, begins to develop. What also becomes illuminated as a possibility is that we may actually have most of the answers to the present questions in real time, when we need them. Anxiety nosedives.

If you have any questions about this approach, feel free to reach out – I am happy to share.

Scott Miller