The Talking Stick

“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

John Wayne “The Shootist”


A few years back, an old friend disliked something I had done, and sat me down to communicate their thoughts and feelings to me. When I tried to explain, they basically said: “shut up and listen.”

I killed the very real flare of anger: I don’t talk to adults that way, but because of long association, I did as they asked, figuring that if they really, really needed to get it out of their system…so be it. At no point did they ask my side, why I did what I did, or display the slightest interest in my perspective.

Again, so be it. But I can tell you something: I’ve lived my entire life avoiding people who feel they have the right to do this. I consider it infantalizing and disrespectful. It is the action of someone convinced that they know all there is to know about a situation, need no additional information, and convinced that you would be improved by being more like them, and/or following their instructions.

I don’t play that. I don’t do that to other people, and I don’t let people do that to me. But…because of the aforementioned long association (of decades), I tolerated it, and hoped they’d gotten it out of their system.

A couple of weeks later we spoke again. And…the haranguing began anew. I tried to suggest that they had never asked my side of things, and therefore my intents and motivations were unknown to them. They were apparently not interested in the slightest, never asked, just continued to lay in to me. I repeated a couple of times that what I considered a critical step in the discussion had not been taken.

But…it wasn’t a discussion, apparently. It was just a dressing-down.

Fine. Haven’t reached out to them since. They reached out to me once, and I responded politely, and that was it. Saw them once, and responded politely, and that was that.

I just do not let people treat me in a way I don’t treat others. Core principle. If you don’t like something you observe me doing, but aren’t interested in my perspective on what happened, you are playing by rules I don’t play by. And if I suspect that, were the shoe on the other foot you would resent someone doing that to you…then I have to wonder what the actual intent was, what the perspective was, what your belief about what you were doing and the nature of our relationship might be.

As of this moment, I don’t know. Because I have no interest in being subjected to that again. Heck, Mommy used to do that. But if you aren’t my Mommy, you don’t have that right.

In all likelihood, that relationship won’t recover. If this person really felt that approach was appropriate, then they deserve to surround themselves with people who agree. I am not one of those people, and never will be.


When someone treats you a specific way, it is wise to pay attention. A question comes immediately to mind: How would they like being treated/spoken to like that? Would they consider it respectful and appropriate?

I used to test this, by deliberately mirroring back an attitude, body language, phrasing, tonality or facial expression. The intent: to determine what that behavior means TO THEM. If they respond well, then I have to just consider it part of their psychological or cultural make-up.

For instance: someone yells at you while arguing. You yell back. If they tell you it was disrespectful for you to yell, then they were disrespecting you, assuming you are both adults. If on the other hand they bat the ball back to you, that might just be the way they grew up: people yell, and then hug, and get over it.

In fact, in some cases if you DON’T yell back they consider you weak. Or even that you don’t love them(!). What do you do if that’s the case? I would suggest asking yourself if you would enjoy this kind of relationship. If not, you can explain your preferences, and give them a chance to respond. If they feel they would enjoy communicating differently, you have a chance.

If not, separate.

Each of you has the right to be treated in the manner that brings you joy. Neither of you has the right to impose your preferences on another adult.


What is my personal preference? The “Talking Stick”. Basically, you use some object, say…a stick.

  1. #1 holds the stick. They say their piece.
  2. #2 repeats back to #1 what they said, and continues until #1 agrees that the essence of the communication is sound.
  3. #1 now gives the Talking Stick to #2. #2 says THEIR piece.
  4. #1must now repeat back what has been said, until #2 is satisfied.
  5. #2 passes the Talking Stick back to #1, and the process continues until the communication is complete.

The first time I used this with Jason, it was a breakthrough. He SO enjoyed having the power, and making Dad say something over and over until I got it right. But after the little flash of power was over, he actually settled down and we really communicated. He felt respected and heard, especially when Daddy had to back up and try again.

It was a breakthrough moment. I’ve used this technique with Tananarive as well, and it has never failed to improve communication…and it is often fun to see where I accidentally “step on” her communications, or mishear or misinterpret. Sheesh!


I had an experience where a pair of friends (they had once been married) experienced communication difficulties, and I suggested a Talking Stick. What came out rapidly was that one partner talked and thought over the other one CONSTANTLY, hallucinated meanings, presumed knowledge they didn’t have, broke the rules of engagement…it was seriously damaged communication. Frankly, I wondered why in the world anyone would put up with it.

Maybe the sex was REALLY good.

Nah. If nookie was all THAT, we’d never get out of bed. Similar to the same reason men’s backs are stiff. Ummm…let’s not go there right now, shall we?

Anyway, the real point is that you observe the words and behaviors of a friend or potential friend. Do you want to play by those rules? Give them a chance to adjust. If they don’t, LEAVE.

Mirror the behaviors back to them. If they get angry when you do to them what they did to you, you understand what that behavior means to THEM. That then tells you the hidden content of their communication. Do you like that message? Are you willing to play by those rules? No? LEAVE.

How about people who change behaviors after you are in a relationship? Well…that is definitely a risk, and a real monster can conceal themselves.

But here are some tests:

  1. Go on a road trip with them. Long miles, bad food, and sleeping in odd places are stressors that make the person focus on their discomfort. Often, their real nature will peek out for you.
  2. Watch them when winning. When something goes really well. How do they handle success and power?
  3. Watch them when losing. When things go really badly. How do they handle threats to their world view and self-image?
  4. How do they handle people who have MORE power than them?
  5. How do they handle people with LESS power than them?
  6. How are they with children? Animals?
  7. How are they when sleepy? Intoxicated?

I remember a military guy saying that he didn’t trust a man until he’d seen him drunk. In Vino Veritas, as the saying goes.

In other words, know that people can only focus on one thing at a time. When they do, the rest of their personality goes on automatic, and you can glimpse their real nature IF AND ONLY IF they are not aware of what you are looking for.

I’ve gotten sneakier than that. If I’m at someone’s house, and I had an odd premonition about them, I’ve made a fast, aggressive movement at their dog when they’re out of the room. If the dog flinches away, I know something.

But if that dog just looks at me like I’m an idiot, I know a different set of things.


Determine a potential lover’s, or a friend’s, values, beliefs and rules of engagement. If they don’t match yours, beware. For both your sakes: remember: THEY deserve to be surrounded by people who match their values, just like you. Hell, if you care about them…do you want to inflict yourself on them if they really, really object so strongly to your nature?

I thought not. So don’t let them inflict theirs upon you, either.



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