Why the Talking Stick Creates Trust

The morning news is celebrating a minor triumph of civility in the United States Senate. Senator Susan Collins helped broker a (very) short-term deal by using a talking stick – a centuries-old example of early social engineering from Native Americans.

What’s interesting here is not the agreement itself, but how the use of the talking stick creates trust.

The Nature of Trust

Interpersonal trust is a bilateral, reciprocating relationship based on risk-taking. Let me unpack that in simple English.

Trust requires a trustor, and a trustee. The trustor initiates the relationship by taking a risk. The trustee then responds, or not, by being trustworthy. The players than reciprocate roles – it becomes the trustee’s turn to be the trustor. And so on.

As a visual metaphor, think of a simple handshake; one person extends their hand – the other (usually) responds in kind. A minor social ritual, but of the type that plays out dozens of times a day in simple respectful, reciprocating gestures. It is the stuff of etiquette, among other things.

The Critical Role of Listening

Trust formation follows the rule of reciprocity – but what is the currency of that reciprocity? A powerful component of it is very basic – listening. As in, “If you listen to me, I will listen to you.”

This is a familiar proposition to all of us. In sales, we have “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” In fields as diverse as hostage negotiation, terrorist interrogation, and suicide hotlines, we know the critical nature of listening in order to ensure the other person feels heard. (In the field of relationships, you’ve probably been on one end or the other of the familiar line, “Would you stop trying to solve the problem, I just want you to listen to me.”)

I’m not talking about “active listening,” or listening to find out the other person’s position, or to formulate a value proposition. I’m talking about something much more basic and fundamental – listening so that the other person feels heard, validated, understood. This is primal stuff.

The Talking Stick

What the talking stick does is to ritualize this fundamental human truth. The only person allowed to talk is the one holding the stick. The result – even though everyone ‘knows’ that it’s an artificial constraint – is that it works.

We are hard-wired to appreciate the civility of listening – and to respond in return. The talking stick is a physical reminder of a basic rule of trust creation: the critical role of listening. If you let me talk about my issues, I will then let you talk about yours.

It’s a rule all humans seem to respect; and a clever vehicle, even if transparent, for drawing on our better natures to create trust.