Speaking Circles® and Adolescent Development

by Leslie Medine and Edd Conboy

The psychologist Erik Erikson identified the search for identity as the primary developmental task for adolescence. According to his theory, the primary milieu for this search was in peer relationships. Speaking Circles seem to be one optimal setting for young people to safely and effectively grapple with these identity issues in a way that allows them to become more clear about who they are and what they stand for in the world.

Within the structure of Speaking Circles there are four elements that were both most challenging and most rewarding for the young people who participated in them at HOME. All the youth interviewed agreed that two of these, making eye contact and listening deeply, were the most important experiences for them. The other two, receiving acknowledgment and being videotaped were seen by most of the youth to be of particular value.

It may well be part of our wiring as human beings that making eye contact is often a precursor to either mating or fighting. Staring at someone, especially for adolescents, is usually read, depending upon the situation, as either an aggressive or a flirtatious action. With their experiences in Speaking Circles, all of the youth we interviewed reported becoming more aware of the empowering nature of holding eye contact in a supportive, yet less charged way. As a result they are more able to maintain eye contact in other settings, with their classroom teachers for example, and also to speak up more in their classes than they did previously.

Another powerful learning that emerged from making eye contact with each other occurred when they became acutely aware of how much internal processing was going on. One young person commented on having the feeling that, even though the circle was completely silent, it seemed to her to be very noisy. It was as if she could hear the other participants' internal chatter as well as her own. This insight led to the second challenging element of Speaking Circles--listening.

Most youth do not feel listened to, either by adults or by their peers. During the times when they were asked to take in what the speaker was saying (or not saying), to just listen, they became more aware that listening is a choice one makes in the moment. They also gained a greater awareness of just how much energy it takes to listen on a deeper level. Additionally, several young people reported that, since their exposure to Speaking Circles, they are listening to other people more attentively. They are also more willing to share their thoughts and feelings because they have the sense that other people want to hear what they have to say.

There seems to be a similar developmental process that each young person went through as they experienced more circles. Initially, they felt very uncomfortable with being in front of the group. They felt pressure and varying degrees of performance anxiety. Over time they gradually became accustomed to making eye contact with each member of the audience. As this occurred, they began to experience a shift in their perceptions of the audience. They felt less threatened as they began to form a relationship with the audience as a whole. This led to a sense that the audience was not only interested in what they had to say, but were also supportive and appreciative of them as speakers.

Conversely, feeling appreciated was a problem for some of the youth we interviewed. They became very uncomfortable when the audience applauded after they finished speaking. They felt it was strange to clap for someone who was "just being themselves." Gradually however, they began to see that the applause stemmed from the fact that being authentic in front of a group of people is difficult and worthy of appreciation. At first they could see this only when others were in the front speaking. Later, after participating in several circles, they were able to take in the fact that the same was true for them as well.

They also learned a great deal from the video tapes that were recorded while they were speaking. For most of the young people this was their first experience seeing themselves perform like this on tape. Several of them gleaned some valuable insights about how they appear to others. For instance, some learned that they looked very difference than they actually felt. In fact in one situation the more nervous the person actually felt, the calmer she appeared on tape. This led her to some interesting conclusions about what it means for her to be "real."

In the final analysis the experience with Speaking Circles allowed each young person to explore issues of identity and relationship in safe and challenging ways. They each came away with valuable insights and tools that have been able to apply in other areas of their lives.

About the Authors:

Leslie Medine, the initial force behind the creation of HOME, has been involved in all aspects of youth development, education and collaborative work between youth and adults for over 25 years.

Edd Conboy is a consultant and executive coach who has worked with high performance individuals, teams and organizations in the U.S., Europe and Asia. He has been involved with HOME since its inception.

HOME is an alternative educational and youth development project for high school students in the Alameda, California, Unified School District. HOME is funded through national and local foundations, as well as local public funding sources.


© October 1999 New Horizons for Learning