Speaking Circles are small groups of 8-10 people who come together to feel at ease in public speaking. Originally developed as a way to combat stage fright, independent practitioners now also report successful applications to treating stuttering, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other social challenges.
Speaking Circles were developed in the late 1970s by former stand-up comedian Lee Glickstein, who codified the methods he found successful in addressing his own experience of stage fright. Subsequently, Glickstein registered the name Speaking Circles as a trademark and incorporated a business, Speaking Circles International, to deliver training using his methods through a network of licensed facilitators. The Speaking Circles website now lists over 50 facilitators who have paid for initial training and ongoing certification and who now operate their own practices across the United States, Belgium, Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Mexico and Japan.
The core of Glickstein's method is a state of mind he calls Relational Presence, something he describes as "a state of receptivity to another without agenda or effort."
Traditional oratory and rhetorical approaches to public speaking highlight performance as a key to engaging and holding an audience. Metaphorically, speakers are seen as connecting with their audiences by 'reaching out' to them through compelling words, gestures and arguments.
In contrast, speakers applying Relational Presence techniques invite connection by establishing a sense of intimate safety. The speaker and each audience member understand that it's OK to simply be themselves and no performance is required.
The most usual method of a speaker establishing Relational Presence with an audience is through non-threatening eye contact made by the speaker with individual members of the audience, and held for longer than usual periods of time (usually a minimum of few seconds for each audience member engaged in this way).
There is research to suggest that this sort of eye contact releases the social bonding hormone Oxytocin, which may well explain the increased sense of safety and trust that speakers and audiences report feeling when a speaker is connecting using Relational Presence.
Other research by Dr Stephen Porges suggests that extended non-threatening eye-contact activates what he calls the Social Engagement System, which acts as a brake on the normal fight or flight response, slows the heart rate and thereby creates a sense of safety. More details of the relationship between Dr Porges work and Relational Presence can be found in this article.
Licensed facilitators teach Relational Presence through an approach sharing elements in common with group psychotherapy. It aims to gradually repair the damage left behind from any earlier public traumas in life.
The following description describes a typical evening 2-3 hour Speaking Circle meeting, although many facilitators run Speaking Circle workshops lasting 1 or more days:
- In a brief introduction, the facilitator reminds participants of the groundrules described below, then every person present stands up in front of the group for a 3-minute "check in" turn, though there is no requirement to speak at all..
- Each group member takes it in turn to talk for five minutes "on stage", again with no requirement to speak, cued to finish in 30 seconds when the facilitator raises his or her finger.
- Other group members forming the audience provide unconditional support and positive acceptance, both by remaining still and by paying full attention during the speaker's turn and by making only positive comments afterwards in feedback.
- Listeners give positive brief appreciations of the essential qualities they experienced in the person. They refrain from mentioning the person's content; evaluating or comparing the turn with previous turns; or coaching, analysing or advising. Speakers do not comment on feedback beyond acknowledging it.
- Between turns, group members do not talk amongst themselves or comment on other turns.
- Group members respect the confidentiality of what is said, and do not repeat the contents of turns outside the Circle without specific permission.
- Facilitators offer the option to videotape each person's turn, using a tape that each participant brings for that purpose and which they can take away to review their turn in private.
- When everyone has had their turn up front, the facilitator ends the formal meeting with a few words and there is an opportunity for social interaction.
- Anon. (2001), The value of Speaking Circles for those who stammer, British Stammering Association, retrieved 2008-07-31
- Dr. Marilyn Kroplick, Speaking Circles Applied to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), New Horizons for Learning, retrieved 2008-07-31
- Lee Glickstein (1999), Be Heard Now!, Broadway
- Official Speaking Circles website
- Speaking Circles sets natural tone for open arms, The Japan Times Online
- Just Don't Say "Um", San Francisco Chronicle
- Account of applications of Speaking Circles to speech therapy
- Focusing in Prison, By Gena Corea, Staying in Focus, The Focusing Institute Newsletter, Volume VI, Number 2, Applications of Focusing, MAY 2006
- Turning to One Another, World Conversation Initiatives. Speaking Circles is listed among others as a resource in this directory
- Web article - Scarier Than Surgery: Public Speaking - MSN Encarta
- Global Ideas Bank listing of Speaking Circles
- Speaking Circles Applied to Adolescents, Leslie Medine and Edd Conboy
- "The Presence Blog", Articles about the Speaking Circles Method by Daniel Kingsley and Millie Baker
- Official Speaking Circles Research page