Could have used a talking stick…

A few months back, I was asked to lecture at a public event, and agreed.  I noticed that it would be a hardship, as the schedule would conflict with family events (I’m deliberately being oblique here) and decided I could finesse it, despite the increased stress: the contribution was more important.


The organizer reached out to me via PM a week before the event, asking me if I was still attending, and I said sure.   They then began criticizing me, saying that it didn’t seem that way, as I hadn’t been promoting it.   I said that I really don’t do a lot of promotion for my public appearances, and that they really didn’t have a right to complain about something I’d not agreed to do–I’d only agreed to appear, not promote.  That they were not my employer, hadn’t paid me, and had no right to complain at me like that–I was donating my time.


This triggered a long series of increasingly unpleasant  exchanges, in which they accused me of not promoting because I wasn’t paid, that my ego was through the roof, and so forth.  Multiple times I sought to clarify that no, I was saying that because I was donating my time, they had no reasonable expectation that I had a responsibility to let them speak to me that way.


I’m happy that I preserved the entire exchange, because I suspect they will spread the story that I was mercenary about promotion, rather than reminding them that courtesy was important, ESPECIALLY when the issue is a charitable  donation.


Which led me to wondering if anyone else had noticed that when people ask you to give your time for free, for some odd reason they feel you have more obligations to them than if they pay you.


I think I know why: because when money is on the table, people get real clarity about what is expected on both sides. Whereas, when time and energy are volunteered, there are massive ASSUMPTIONS about responsibilities.


A person working for a charity often has the goals of that charity very close to their hearts. They do EVERYTHING–lose sleep, damage relationships, go broke, all in the name of the cause: the convention, the charity, the event.


They believe that if you volunteer, you understand it.  Then, if you don’t act the way they think THEY would act, they think “this person is like me.  If I did X, it would mean Y.  They did X.  It must mean Y.”


And if “Y” is a negative?  Big problem.  Hurt.  Anger.  Fear.



Imagine this in a personal relationship.   If you don’t have a clear contract, you can NEVER fulfill all their unspoken expectations.  They will ALWAYS have a reason to be angry with you (“you should have known…I did X…my other friends do Y why don’t you…”) and so forth.   And if you take responsibility for their disappointment, you will never, ever catch your balance.  Because in their mind it isn’t their responsibility to communicate their desires, it is yours to behave according to an unclarified standard.


“If you love me, you’ll know what you did.  I know what YOU want and need.  Why don’t you know what I want and need.  That’s what love is. So you either cannot read my mind (which means you don’t love me) or you CAN read it, but don’t care that you hurt me.”



YOU CANNOT WIN in a situation like this if you play by their rules. It is a “heads I win tails you lose” argument, and if they get you to buy into it , you’re screwed.


If there is anger, start by assuming it is fear.   What are they afraid of? Start with the most basic motivation: survival. Is death or injury on the line? No? Sex and relationships? No? How about power and authority? No? Ego identity and self-image? No? Do they feel unheard and therefore unloved? No? Is their map of the world threatened (often this is politics)? No? Is there some existential thing (often religion).

I can’t think of a single case that didn’t touch on one of these levels.   Have you seen this to be true?


I’ve watched marriages fall apart because of the unspoken expectations.  Haven’t you?   And that’s assuming that both people had total integrity and positive intentions.


But…what if one person ISN’T ethical?   Imagine the potential for manipulation.  Huge.


But let’s assume that both people are sincere.  In that case, the tool called a “Talking Stick” can be a lifesaver.  It certainly would have prevented this problem.


Simply, you designate an object as the “talking stick.” This might be a literal stick, or anything else that can be held in the hand.


  1. Person #1 holds the stick.  ONLY the person holding the stick may speak. The other must listen.
  2. Person #1 makes a statement.  Person #2 repeats the statement.  If person #1 agrees that #2 has spoken accurately, without editorial, the stick passes hands and Person #2 may now speak.
  3. If Person #1 does NOT agree that the statement has been repeated accurately, they repeat the statement.  Person #2 makes another attempt to repeat accurately.   This process is repeated until #1 agrees the statement has been repeated accurately.
  4. In a dominating relationship, a neutral observer may be necessary to prevent abuse: one or the other partner manipulating by lying or editing or adding to the statement, or insisting that partner #2 has NOT repeated it, when in fact they have. If there is repeated disagreement, or interruption, such a neutral observer should be called in.
  5. This process is repeated, the stick passed from hand to hand, until the entire communication has been completed.  If the stick holder makes long, complicated statements, they may have to be helped to simply



This process is amazing in gaining clarity of values, bringing unconscious expectations to consciousness.  If we assume good intentions on both parts,  it will get you through to actual communication.   And if one party is manipulative, it will be very rapidly apparent.  If you are too weak to stand up to them, get a neutral witness (a therapist, for instance) into the equation.  If they refuse, you had better walk away, or accept emotional slavery.




(Like this tool? We have countless more.   The person who controls the story controls your life.  Learn to write and communicate with greater clarity:


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