Talking circles are meetings of minds, often around points of difference or difficulty. They are common in indigenous cultures. The inherent tension of the meeting is balanced by protocols of listening and respect for varied viewpoints. From this, rather than criticism and confrontation, productive possibilities may emerge.
The Purpose of Talking Circles in the Social Sciences Conference
The purpose of the Talking Circles is to give shape to a conference which is wide-ranging in its scope and broad-minded in its interests. They also give people an opportunity to interact around the key ideas of the conference away from the formalities of the plenary, paper, workshop and colloquium sessions. They are places for the cross-fertilisation of ideas, where cycles of conversation are begun, relationships formed and networks.
Talking Circles are not designed to force consensus nor even to strive towards commonality. Their intention is, in the first instance, to find a common ground of shared meanings and experiences in which differences are recognised and respected. Their outcome is not closure in the form of answers, but an open-ness which points in the direction of pertinent questions. The group finally identifies axes of uncertainty which then feed into the themes for the conference in the following year.
How Do They Work?
The Talking Circles meet for 45-minute sessions during the conference, and the outcomes of each Talking Circle are reported back to the whole conference in the closing plenary session. They are grouped around each of the conference streams and focus on the specific areas of interest represented by each stream. Following is the outline of the Talking Circles that are currently in use but we welcome feedback and suggestions for improvement from participants.
- Talking Circle 1 (45 minutes): Who Are We? What is our common ground?
- Talking Circle 2 (45 minutes): What is to be done?
- Closing Plenary: 15-minute contribution to the closing plenary by the Talking Circles co-ordinator.
It is important to note that each Talking Circle can be organised in any way that the members of the group together agree is appropriate. They can be informal and discursive, or structured and task-oriented. Each group of Talking Circles has a facilitator.
The Role of the Facilitator
The facilitator must be comfortable with the process of thinking 'out of the square' and also embracing multiple and diverse scenarios. The process is one of creating a kind of collective intelligence around the stream. The facilitator should shape a conversation which is open to possibilities and new lines of inquiry or action; they should embody a spirit of open-ness to new knowledge rather than the closure of advocacy.
The facilitator is required to keep a public record of the main discussion points on large sheets of plain paper. These may be displayed on the walls of the public spaces of the conference. These points need to be summarised for the Talking Circles co-ordinator who will make in a 15-minute presentation in the closing plenary session at the conference. The facilitator is also asked to:
Write a report for the conference website and journal which provides an overview of the deliberations of the Talking Circle (this is to be sent to Common Ground as soon as possible after the event).
Optional: Circulate the report to the members of their Talking Circle within one month of the end of the conference, requesting their comments and suggestions.
Possible Session Contents - Suggestions to assist facilitators
Talking Circle 1 (45 minutes): Who are we?
- Orientation: members of the group briefly introduce themselves.
- What could be the narrative flow of the three/four talking circle sessions?
- What could be the outcomes of the work of this group, and its contribution to the closing plenary session, the journal and the conference as a whole (including the themes for next year’s conference)?
- Assessing the landscape, mapping the territory: What is the scope of our stream? Do we want to rename it?
- What are the burning issues, the key questions for this stream?
- What are the forces or drivers that will affect us as professionals, as thinkers, as citizens, as aware and concerned people whose focus is this particular stream?
- Where could we be, say, ten years hence? Scenario 1: optimism of the will; Scenario 2: pessimism of the intellect.
Talking Circle 2 (45 minutes): What themes are emerging?- What’s been coming up in the parallel sessions in this stream since the last Talking Circle? What are the differences of approach, perspective and experience? / What are the points of convergence, triangulation?
What are our differences?
- The setting: present and imminent shocks, crises, problems, dilemmas — what are they and what is the range of responses?
- What are the cleavages, the points of dissonance and conflict?
- What are the dimensions of our differences (1)? Politics, society, economics, culture, technology, environment.
- What are the dimensions of our differences (2)? Persons, organisations, communities, nations, the global order.
What is our common ground?
- Where are the moments of productive diversity?
- What are the bases for collaboration (1)? Politics, society, economics, culture, technology, environment.
- What are the bases for collaboration (2)? Persons, organisations, communities, nations, the global order.
- Alternative futures: describe in outline several alternative scenarios.
- What are the forces that drive in the direction of, or mitigate against, each scenario?
What is to be done?
- What’s been coming up in the parallel sessions in this stream since the last talking circle?
- What is the emerging view of the future?
- Can we foresee, let along predict alternative futures?
- Looking back a decade hence, what might be decisive or seminal in the present?
- Scenarios: can we create images of possibility, and agendas for robust alternative futures?
- Directions: conventional and unconventional wisdoms?
- Strategies: resilience in the face of the inevitable or creative adaptation?
- What could be done: review the scenarios developed in talking circle 1.
- Axes of uncertainty: working towards the right questions even when there’s no certainty about the answers.
Closing Plenary: 15-minute contribution to the closing plenary by the Talking Circles Co-ordinator based on summaries provided by each Talking Circle.