Speaking Circle® & The Development of Self-Expression
by Zainal Abidin Rahman

More than public speaking
When they first hear the term Speaking Circle®, many people think that it is all about public speaking. It is, but goes beyond public speaking or presentation skills. Imagine standing in front of any group and feeling absolutely at ease (and I do mean AT EASE) , speaking naturally, spontaneously and winning the rapt attention of your audience. That’s what participants get to feel and do after only a few sessions of experiencing a Speaking Circle®. But that’s not all.

How It Started
Let me first describe my involvement with the Speaking Circle® Process. In late 1999, I was visiting a number of major US cities (Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco) taking in the sights, meeting friends as well as attending several training workshops. On the last leg of my tour, I found myself in Lee Glickstein’s home in Mill Valley near San Francisco. When I reached the front gate of Lee’s house, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a familiar greeting “Selamat Datang” (“Welcome” in Malay). The greeter, Doreen Hamilton, one of Lee’s trainers, was a former American Peace Corp volunteer in South East Asia in the 1960s and still remembered some phrases of the language.

The Speaking Circle® Process: A Major Shift
I found myself with 11 other participants in what was to be an exciting 2 - day adventure called The Speaking Circle Intensive. Lee first explained the philosophy behind the process which is essentially about connecting with the audience, especially through soft focus eye contact, rather than trying to impress or blow them over with language fluency, intelligence, accomplishments or whatever. This in itself is a major shift from the usual emphasis in most public speaking systems which is: deliver with impact!; captivate your audience!; impress them!.

In Complete Silence
After that short introduction, we were given the works. In all our speaking assignments making eye contact with each and every individual in the audience was mandatory. No “eye time” was to be set aside for the floor or the ceiling or the wall or your notes. Every second was meant for the audience. The first assignment was, for most of us, the most frightening. Each one of us was required to stand in front of the audience for 2 full minutes making soft focus eye contact with each and every audience member – and here’s the catch - in complete silence. It was truly the loooongest 2 minutes of my life. But I survived. Once over, it wasn’t such a big thing. This was followed by other speaking assignments of longer durations throughout the rest of the day and the following day. All our speeches were videotaped in individual tapes.

Speaking as well as Listening
Various topics were thrown at us to speak on. We were encouraged not to prepare our “speech” before hand but to speak naturally and spontaneously, to go with the flow. And it ok if you chose to remain silent for the entire 5 or 7 minutes of your time up front. Most chose to say something.. If you think we could “cheat” by mentally rehearsing our talk in our head while waiting for our turn you are wrong. Because as a member of the audience we have another role to play: giving our undivided attention to the person in front and to reciprocate the eye contact. Once the speech is over we were called to give our feedback on how the essence of the person in front has impacted us. And only positive feedback was allowed. Unlike other speaking systems, no advice on how the speaker could have enhanced his speech was to be proffered. Lee’s reason was that the speaker should review the tapes on completion of the training and he himself would decide on the areas that he would want to enhance. Any suggestion or advice by others were generally unhelpful and can even be damaging. My experience with my old Toastmasters Club supports Lee’s view. So Speaking Circles is not just about speaking but also about listening and giving expression to that listening.

It’s not a Performance
We were told to speak from our hearts. Lee had to remind several of us not to put on a performance. The impulse to tell the world how smart, how sophisticated, how clever, what good upbringing we had, etc was indeed compelling and universal. It’s our need for approval from others. We were told just to make a connection with each and every member of the audience through eye contact and then speak from our hearts. During several of these sessions, I noticed that virtually all of us got emotional; many shed tears. A box of tissue paper was always at hand. We were starting to speak from our inner core. We told personal stories which we didn’t remember relating to others.

Back home
Back in Singapore, as a certified Speaking Circles facilitator, I run Speaking Circles for adults and school children. I’ve discovered what the main benefit in participating in a Speaking Circle really is. It is not in removing the fear of speaking in front of a group; it is not in the courage of looking at others eyeball to eyeball; it is not in the bonding that the speaker develops with the audience; important though these are. The main benefit is in the participant’s new-found ability and willingness to speak out on issues that lie deep within him or her. And I know that moment comes when they begin to share personal stories that move them emotionally. In the middle of these stories I frequently hear participants blurt out “I don’t know why I am telling all these to you.” They become more authentic; they begin to share their vulnerabilities; they have started to take off their masks. . All these can only mean they have started to shake off their insecurities and defensiveness and become more trusting of others. It’s akin to therapy and all it takes is a willingness to share personal stories.

The Asian manager and his mask
Sometimes ago, a local newspaper in Singapore highlighted the unhappiness of workers with their supervisors and managers. If given a choice, many prefer to work under European or American bosses. When questioned further, they describe the Singapore manager as aloof and distance. Many managers put on a mask at work so that the workers do not really know who they are and what they are thinking about. A HR director I spoke to admitted that this as much. Furthermore they are stingy with singing praises of their subordinates but are quick with criticism. Although they have been sent to various forms of communication skills training, the communication gap remains. Simply because they are uncomfortable opening up to their people. The mask is always on. When these managers are exposed to Speaking Circle and begin to show their authentic self, they become more relaxed and comfortable in their dealings with their subordinates.

Speaking Circles for Children
I have also done Speaking Circles with children. As usual they begin with a lot of fear and doubts in themselves. Many complain that they have nothing to talk about. Several have deep-seated issues regarding making eye-contact. This actually boils down to an issue of self-esteem. But as the sessions went on, they become more and more relaxed and the words begin to flow. And even if they have nothing to talk about, they can be comfortable looking and listening to each other in complete silence. Speaking and listening are intertwining skills. The first lesson of developing self-expression has just started.

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact: zainal@competencestrategies.com.sg.

For reprint permission, please email zainal@competencestrategies.com.sg.

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