Speaking Circles® are well-known for both attenuating stage fright and fostering speaker-audience rapport, both of which allow for authentic, effective communication. During a Speaking Circle, the speaker receives unconditional positive regard from their audience and, in turn, each audience member is individually seen and attuned to by the speaker through the practice of Relational Presence; I suggest that this process mirrors secure attachment, which is central to the attuned parent-child relationship. This article reviews key components of attachment theory as it relates to Relational Presence and suggests that Speaking Circles may particularly benefit those who struggle with a sense of belonging in social contexts.
Public Speaking necessarily involves a speaker seeking to communicate with an audience, and a degree of connection between speaker and audience. The experience of Speaking Circles Facilitators and practitioners is that the degree to which a speaker’s material will resonate with the listener is dependent on Relational Presence, or the speaker’s ability to pay attention to this connection in the moment. As Speaking Circle facilitator Daniel Kingsley has analogized, this present-focused relationship with the audience acts as a conduit for the meaning of speaker’s words much like a telephone wire transmits sounds. Although our words themselves may reach the audience without this attention to the connection, the meaning behind them won’t be fully understood or appreciated.
In the Speaking Circles method the relationally present speaker seeks to non-verbally invite each member to join them in a sense of belonging. Through sustained, mutual eye contact with each audience member, during which the speaker seeks to make “real” eye contact with the audience member, seeing them as an individual, the speaker looks to create an active speaker-listener relationship characterized by heightened awareness of their connection. In this relationship the speaker does their best to remain open, authentic and available, allowing themselves to “see and be seen.”
For the speaker, the practice of being relationally present generates “…a state of receptivity to another without agenda or effort.”1 The experience of Speaking Circles practitioners is that Relational Presence drives psychological processes that can support many benefits including easing public speaking anxieties, allowing speakers to find comfort in natural silence, assuming existing natural connection with all listeners in a room, compelling rapt attention and developing natural storytelling abilities. I believe that Relational Presence is vital for our ability to connect with others in many settings – and especially so early in our socialization as infants.
Attachment and Attunement
Infants are born with a drive to attach with their caregivers. Recent studies have shown that we learn our mother’s scent and voice in the womb2-6 and even how to mimic the cadence of her native language to better summon her care with our cries.7 This drive to bond, called attachment, is speculated to have evolved to increase our survival in times of threat.8
In an ideal world an infant’s attachment drives are rewarded by a responsive parental figure, which cements their affiliative bond. A mother’s correct identification of her distressed infant’s cries of hunger, for example, leads the infant to associate the positive experience of nourishment with her mother’s presence (her milk, her scent, her voice…), which facilitates the infant’s reliance upon her mother as a soothing presence.
Attunement can perhaps best be described as the byproduct of these cycles of distress and calming; as a parent improves his or her caretaking ability, the infant increasingly becomes dependent on this parent for support. In this way, an attuned parent provides much more than physical nourishment; the secure attachment fostered by attunement helps the child to develop the ability to trust and fosters self-worth, which ultimately forms a secure base from which the future adult will openly approach and relate to others.8 Secure attachment can also promote brain development; premature infants whose mothers have been coached to be more attuned (improving eye contact, responsiveness, touch) have improved brain activity by their 40-week ‘birthdate’ and fewer social and cognitive delays at 18 months.9-11 Healthy attunement may also reduce the incidence of depression and other psychiatric disorders in adulthood.12
A perfectly attuned parent, however, is pure fiction. A parent’s own early attachment history can have profound effects upon their ability to attune.13 Genuine relating with our parents and emotional development were theorized by the renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott to require an experience of disillusionment with our parents; a parent he termed ‘the good enough parent.’14 Such a relationship would have some healthy ruptures in attunement (e.g., a parent who is unavailable at our time of need or fails to respond in a way that attenuates our distress).
If we are securely attached to the people that raise us, then we carry around the framework to securely attach to others. However, when caregivers consistently fail to respond or do so unpredictably, or violently, the results can be diminished capacity for intimacy8,15 and, I hypothesize, impairments in our ability to be relationally present. The main treatment for those so impacted by attachment trauma is a corrective relational experience16 during which an individual develops secure attachment to another person, often a therapist. I believe that such a corrective experience is also provided, to an extent, by participation in Speaking Circles.
Application to Speaking Circles
A main objective of Speaking Circles is to improve communication by nurturing a natural speaker–listener connection. Initially, public speaking may be a challenge for speakers who are prone to experiencing attachment figures, in this case, the audience, as threatening or not trustworthy. If our family background included an unpredictable parent, we may become preoccupied with our audience’s regard for us and oscillate between wanting proof of their admiration and experiencing dismay with any indication to the contrary.
Similarly, we may approach an audience with little expectation of support if we come from a family that was rejecting – as we have adapted this stance defensively. When we approach our audience with an expectation other than unconditional and positive regard – a consequence of secure attachment – we are not fully present to connect and communicate authentically.
Relational Presence, in holding the speaker in the present moment, may limit habitual and automatic self-referencing maladaptive mental processes and create a “temporary state of non-judgmental, non-reactive, present centered attention and awareness.” 17 Such practices have been shown to promote a state of physical and mental well-being by removing the often negative and inaccurate internal reflections of oneself18 and modulate self-referencing neural networks, so that direct experiencing of the world is promoted over one’s internal narrative.17
Present-moment centered practices are also associated with increased parasympathetic tone19 and thus, lessened ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system responses and activity. Relational Presence may also foster entrainment – a synchronization of brain activity governing cognitive and emotional processes between speaker and listener.20 The soothing nature of this interaction and involved mirroring may bring the speaker and listener into synchronous cortical activation and autonomic states that promote relaxation, a sense of well-being and promote understanding.21 This state has been proposed to invoke neural circuitry and hormones that promote attachment and reduce stress.22
With repeated participation in Speaking Circles and practice in the state of Relational Presence, reduced speaking anxiety may occur with participants who have developed receptivity to an attuned, empathetic audience. Maurice Taylor, M.A., L.M.F.T, a psychotherapist and certified Speaking Circles Facilitator, believes that Speaking Circles facilitate a type of group healing, and that “the repetitive experience of attempting to get in touch with ourselves, to articulate who we are, what we dream of, and what we can imagine in the field of Relational Presence generated by that group of 10 people who are loving us in the best possible way they can facilitates a belonging experience, which adds to the experience of attachment.” A more healthy attachment style fostered by Speaking Circles may be generalized to other public speaking experiences and, due to the naturalistic social experience, may also show benefits in other social domains.
I wish to thank Julie Hartman, PhD for early discussions related to this topic and Audrey Seymour, Daniel Kingsley, Lynne Velling and Paul Browning for helpful discussions and feedback on this paper.
1. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaking_Circles. Accessed 10/30/14.
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