What are talking circles? Find out at the Kentucky Engagement Conference

Steve Jones

Spalding University will host about 150 higher-education faculty, staff and students from around the state tomorrow, Friday, March 2 for a conference that will examine ways to improve civil dialogue on campuses, including using talking circles, and to have productive conversations about difficult topics.

Spalding will be the site of the all-day Kentucky Engagement Conference, sponsored by the Kentucky Campus Compact, which is a coalition of public and private college and university presidents from around the state joined to fulfill the civic purposes of higher education.

The title of the conference is “Civil Dialogue: Approaches and Applications” and will include information on the use of talking circles and restorative practices.

Chandra Irvin, director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal
Chandra Irvin, director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal

The point of the conference is to ask, “How do we get past those fears and anxieties that keep us from really talking to one another about things that really matter?” said Chandra Irvin, director of Spalding’s Center for Spiritual Renewal. “And how do we do it in a civil way that moves us forward as a community and a society?”

“When tensions are very high like in today’s times – and people stake their claims that they’re over here on this side and that you’re on that side – we decide that to prevent us from arguing we’re not going to talk. Then, we don’t make any progress. I don’t learn anything from you, don’t learn why and how you came to think the way you do or what’s important about what you’re saying or what I might not have heard before. What is it that we share? Do we have a greater purpose that we share?

“When we engage in civil dialogue, or have talking circles,” Irvin continued, “we can find those places where we have interconnection, agree and have common goals and visions. When we take that time to slow down and do that and let silence to help us interpret and feel and sense what the other person has just expressed from the depths of their heart, it’s a whole difference experience.”

According to its website, the Kentucky Campus Compact, which has its offices at Northern Kentucky University, helps campuses forge effective community partnerships and provides resources and training for faculty seeking to integrate civic- and community-based learning into the curriculum.

Friday’s conference will run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and includes a keynote address from Spalding President Tori Murden McClure at 9 a.m., titled, “Taking a Risk: Why Difficult Conversations Matter.”

There also will be training about talking circles, which are a dialogue and problem-solving method embraced at Spalding, and skill-building workshops on a range of issues, including restorative justice.

Spalding faculty, staff and students interested in attending can email Liz Eader at the Center for Peace and Spiritual Renewal at [email protected]

Irvin said that after McClure’s speech, several Spalding presenters will give brief explanations on the process of talking circles and the ways they are used at Spalding. That’ll include ways faculty members use them in the classroom and how students view them.

The conference attendees will then form groups to have talking circles.

“They’re very intentionally designed and created safe spaces,” she said, “so that those who participate can engage in those most challenging conversations, those that nobody really wants to talk about like, ‘We could, and I want to, but I would dare not because I become too vulnerable, or I may hurt somebody’s feelings, or it’ll get too heated and the next thing you know, we’ll be fighting.’”

Irvin said talking circles engage participants emotionally and spiritually with one another, and “the participants can identify something much greater than themselves – a purpose and a meaning greater than themselves – and discover how they’re interconnected with one another and their shared vision in the midst of serious differences.”

She said participants realize their individual and collective gifts and wisdom, then “are able to use that wisdom to find solutions that serve everybody.”

The talking circles have guidelines about sharing talking time while also allowing participants not to speak, if they desire, and there’s an object positioned in the circle that symbolizes the group’s connectedness and another object that’s passed around to the person who’s speaking. Silence is also interwoven into the process in order to ponder what a person has said or for upcoming speakers to gather their thoughts.

“It’s designed to respect the worth and dignity of everybody and to allow them to bring their true and best selves forward,” Irvin said.

Irvin said Spalding uses talking circles in a variety of ways, including matters of student discipline, faculty disagreements, faculty-student disagreements and departmental strategies. She said she also has used talking circles in her personal life with friends and relatives.

“It’s a great skill to have and develop,” she said.