Why ‘constructive criticism’ does not work in a Speaking Circle

In a Speaking Circle we give each other feedback. We invite every member of the audience to mention a few words reflecting back a quality of the person. And it should always be positive. This rule is actually one of the ingredients that make a Speaking Circle such a safe place to be. We have all had our dose of criticism in our life, if it not from ourselves, than from teachers and parents. In order to heal from this, we counterbalance that by giving each other praise.

In one of the latest Speaking Circles the idea came up of giving each other ‘constructive’ feedback. The thought behind it is very understandable. One of the reasons you come to a Speaking Circle is that you want to improve your speaking skill. And wouldn’t it be useful to get some concrete tips, instead of vague praise?

The problem with this type of constructive feedback is that it implies that you are currently not a good speaker, that there is something ‘wrong’ with you that should be fixed. It also implies that there is a kind of standard for a ‘good’ speaker, and that this standard lies outside of you. Now, this is exactly the reason why people have fear of speaking in public. You are looking for an outside standard to get some kind of recognition. All this will be undermining your ability to speak in flow.

This is one of the routes that you can take to work on your speaking ability. It is the route I have spent on many years. I went to see public speakers and tried to see what tricks I could learn from them. Things like raising your voice, moving or even jumping. And I took constructive feedback from people very seriously, more serious than my own feelings. They said I should go to see a speech therapist, or I should do something different with my hands. All the feedback was given by very friendly, well intentioned people. But it didn’t help me at all. I was starting to think something was wrong with me. This is the path of hard working and trying to change yourself.

Then I discovered there was also another path. This is a much lighter and joyous path. It assumes that the best you can be is being completely yourself. And guess what: nobody is better a being yourself than you! All you have to do is to create conditions in which this is possible. That is the reason I started a Speaking Circle. The supportive conditions of a Speaking Circle allow you to go to an inner place where there is no criticism and everything is allowed. By going there you discover that you already have an inborn ability to speak fluently. It’s a kind of magic, but it actually works. The mechanism is that if go more often to this inner place, you will have more readily access to it. Speaking then becomes an effortless flow experience.

What you could do is to combine Speaking Circles with something else. Suppose you want to be a better actor, then you could use a Speaking Circle to become more natural in your acting. Then in your acting, your can use all the constructive feedback you can get. But you shouldn’t confuse a Speaking Circle with something like acting. When you mix up the two, you won’t get the benefit. Acting is about performance, Speaking Circles is about being in relationship.

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How a first time participant experienced a Speaking Circle

Nynke Rinzema, author of the blog ‘Authenticiteit werkt’, attended an evening at the Speaking Circles, and writes how she experienced that at one moment of clarity as she found herself speaking in real time, without any second thoughts.

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Article about the Speaking Circles in The Hub

Imke has written a fantastic article about the Speaking Circles in the Hub. Please click here to read it.

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Why you shouldn’t address everyone in the audience

Do you know this feeling that you are trying to speak to a room full of people, and you don’t seem to connect with anyone in particular? Like speaking to a wall. And yet you really are doing you best. Chances are you will feel terribly drained after this experience.

You are not the only one. I notice that most speakers try to address everyone in the room. However, there is a far better approach if you really want your talk to come across. The answer lies in not addressing everyone in the audience, but looking at one person at a time.

We think that it is impolite to leave anyone out, and as a consequence we look at everyone. This is based on the idea that we should send our message across to the whole audience. It’s the old idea that speaking is about performing, like a one sided channel like TV. But the truth is that you simply cannot connect with everyone at the same time. You can only connect with one person at a time.

The first time realized this, I felt a huge relief.  Because I never experienced any anxiety in a one on one conversation. Realising that speaking to a group is nothing different, I felt less nervous when speaking to a group.

Here’s how you do it. There is no technique involved, just a few things to keep in mind:

  • You search the audience for ‘available eyes’. There are always people who are ‘available’: i.e. they are present and ready to connect with you. You don’t bother about the people who are at that moment not available.
  • You look the available person in the eyes, and let the eye contact last as long as it is comfortable. Not too short, not too long. You will automatically feel the point when you want to switch.
  • Then you switch to the next person. You do that slowly (not abruptly), like when you are pooring wine from a bottle from one glass to the next one.


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