The age-old practice of speaking and listening from the heart

Pippa Bondy, a facilitator of courses on ‘the way of council’ – an ancient indigenous practice of holding speaking and listening circles – explains its value in today’s society

‘Council,’ in its original sense, is a spiritual practice that encourages deep and honest communication. Participants learn the art of listening with full attention and of expressing themselves from a place of heartfelt truth. In offering their personal stories from their hearts, council enables people to open to each other as equal human beings in a place of safety and creates community in a way that has become rare in our modern western culture.

The way of council in practice

As a structured process, council involves participants sitting in a circle in a quiet and private place and passing a ‘talking piece.’ The facilitator guides the group in the four intentions of council: to speak from the heart; to listen from the heart without judgment; to speak spontaneously without planning; and to ‘keep it lean.’ Using a talking piece heightens awareness of space and time and helps focus and empower each person, allowing him or her to speak without interruption.

Council offers an effective means of resolving conflicts, making decisions in a group framework and discovering the deeper, often unexpressed needs of individuals and organisations. We can take this practice to any type of meeting, from school classrooms to corporate boardrooms, from women’s and men’s groups, to families and couples.

About ten years ago I was asked to give a talk to a group of forty people between the ages of 65 to 89, all suffering from acute pain for much of their lives. The group was held in a church hall in a deprived area of East London. I immediately recognised that inside their unique lives and humble hearts, they held their own wisdom and answers. So instead of a talk I asked them to put their chairs in a circle. We used a packet of biscuits as a talking piece. I asked everyone to remain silent and listen, not just with their ears, but with their feelings and body too, while whoever held the biscuits spoke. My prompt was to ask each person to speak of his or her pain and when we had completed the circle I would speak of mine. The facilitator is always a part of the circle, creating a safe, non-hierarchical setting.

Tears came and people were touched and moved. These men and women had never heard each other in this way before in all the ten years this group had been meeting. By the end of the evening the atmosphere was alive and electric. Something deeper had been opened, resulting in a profound encounter with themselves and each other.

There is a magic and mystery to the way of council that emerges as each person in the group aspires to speak and listen from the heart; empathy grows, revealing the deepest love, truth, hurt and pain of each participant. This brings about a healing and a deepening of consciousness, and for this reason the practice can serve and support the world we live in today.

Creating a better future for our relationships and our planet

This form of council leads to a deepened sense of our interconnectedness with each other and with our environment. And if peace and healing can be found inside our own hearts and souls, then it means we have an integral part to play in creating social justice and restoring our relationship with our environment.

Virtually all indigenous people from around the world have long used speaking and listening circles. I trained in this approach through The Ojai Foundation USA, a non-profit organisation established in 1975 to explore the interface between human nature and science. Through hosting many native teachers, they grew and developed a modernised form of this ancient practice. In the US it has spread to 12,000 students via 600 trained teachers in more than 60 schools, colleges, the prison service and corporate business.

Through the Ojai Foundation, a programme for council in schools in Israel is developing, alongside peacemaking groups between Jews and Arabs in Israel. In Europe meanwhile, we are setting up a European Council Network (ECN) to promote, share and spread the nature of this work through business and the caring professions.

The challenges of modern living can offer huge opportunities for change and healing. Courses in the way of council can strengthen inner core values, giving us a depth of soul and an appreciation of the importance of spirit in our everyday lives, helping us to take responsibility and encouraging us to realise that our duty is to something larger than just ourselves.