SIMAGES 2014.1 – What NASAGA Means to Me

What NASAGA Means to Me

Analyzing the results of the Play Talking Stick for Empowerment and Connection workshop

By Tamara Stenn


For my session at the 2013 NASAGA conference, Play Talking Stick for Empowerment and Connection, I experimented using an ethnographic research tool I developed to identify values and challenges in unfamiliar cultures.  I used it successfully in training workshops developed for two different studies and gained a better understanding of how indigenous women experienced fair trade in Bolivia as handicraft artists and coffee farmers.  Each group reported data that was different than what had been previously understood about them and what had been reported in others’ studies.  The talking stick training enabled people to speak openly about their experiences in an empowering, non-threatening way using their own voices and lenses.  This gave legitimacy to their feelings and perspectives and created a platform upon which further meaning could be developed.

It was evident that talking stick training could be a useful tool for training needs assessment and community building in the United States, especially in corporate training environments, where outside training is often used to “fix” something that is wrong.  It seems that in many instances, trainers are not always aware of the underlying dynamics of a department or organization.  The perceptions and expectations of the people working within these departments and organizations vary widely.  By using talking stick training, a trainer can become more aware of these differences, which in turn helps produce more effective outcomes.



Time: 1 ½ – 2 hours

Number of Participants: 6-21

Procedure:  Participants sit in a circle.  The activity is introduced.  A voice recorder is placed in the center of the room.  The talking stick (a 12 inch long, 1 inch wide branch or pole) is given to a person to start.  The person says their name (or not) and speaks as much as they want about the topic at hand.  All others listen.  When finished, the speaker passes the talking stick to the person to their left.  That person speaks while all listen.  The stick is slowly passed around the circle in this way, with one person speaking and all else listening.  Afterwards, the voice recorder is turned off.

Participants are thanked for sharing and are then asked to identify the themes they heard emerging from the exercise.  The facilitator writes these on a flip chart.  Then, the facilitator takes another flip chart and divides the paper in half length-wise writing “Challenges” on one side.  The group identifies and talks about challenges they are currently facing, which the facilitator writes down.  Lastly, the facilitator writes “Benefits” on the other half of the paper and participants discuss the benefits associated with the given topic as the facilitator writes them down.  (It is always good to end on a positive note.)

Afterwards, the facilitator transcribes and codes the spoken data from the tape.  Express Scribe is a great free program for transcribing data. (  Also, the TAMS analyzer is an excellent tool for data coding and has a user’s guide available. ( )

When listening to the recording of the session, look for common themes in what is spoken and identify them using a single word.  That word will become the code for that theme.  Next, mark the text with that code each time you see that theme being referenced. TAMS will then count these up and pull them from the text as coded items. This makes it easy to reference the exact phrase that was coded a certain way.

Once completed, a graph of the TAMS count quantified data is created using Excel.  With this information, the group conversation that was captured on the flip chart paper can be analyzed against this core collected data.  One can look for repeated themes or dropped topics.  Items that were referenced during the talking stick activity but dropped in the group discussion can later be revisited to understand why.  Was the topic not important to the entire group?  Was it uncomfortable to openly talk about?  Was it merely forgotten or understood differently when in the group context?  For example, at the NASAGA conference, comments about the spiritual aspect of NASAGA were lost in the large group discussions.

Let’s take a closer look at talking stick training in action by analyzing some results from the workshop conducted at the 2013 NASAGA conference.



Play Talking Stick for Empowerment and Connection was an experiment to see how the talking stick exercise could work in a U.S. environment.  The following is a short report detailing the results of that workshop.  Feel free to use this tool yourself.  If you decide to use talking stick training, please share your results and let me know if you would like to be contacted for further follow-up or explanation.

Overall, participants found NASAGA to be a warm, trusting family that supports, nurtures, and understands them.  Fig. 1 captures the main themes that came from people’s monologues describing what NASAGA meant to them.  Participants spoke of how NASAGA is “home,” “embracing,” “supportive,” and a “really incredible positive experience.”  Participants spoke of receiving inspiration, advice, encouragement, and guidance from others at NASAGA.  One participant explained, “I got all of the responses back I needed and really good ideas of things to do.”  On a personal level, a participant explained, “It is a part of me and I am a part of it.”  This sentiment seemed to be shared by many in the group.  People felt supported professionally as well. “The person in front of me actually has the same dreams and totally gets where I am coming from,” explained one participant talking about the personal connections, inspiration, and spiritual connectedness felt within NASAGA.


(Fig. 1)  NASAGA, 2013

Reflecting upon each other’s experiences, the group identified some shared language about what NASAGA means to them collectively.  Some of the words and phrases shared during this reflection include: connection, belonging, the family one always wanted, welcoming, something to look forward to, high energy, excitement, comfortable, continuity, a span of integrated personal to professional interactions, understanding, generosity, sharing, inspiration, trust, safe, encouragement, big dreaming, real support, a place that will “help launch” and nurture possibilities, fun on steroids, and “a blast.”  Fig. 2 is a wordle ( that captures all that was said during the talking stick part of the session.


nasaga_wordle_fig2 (Fig. 2) NASAGA 2013

Going deeper, the challenges of maintaining a NASAGA connection were discussed.  The cost of the conference and the travel involved proved to be a hardship for some, however, most agreed the conference price was a “good value.”  With their other professional duties pressing, the length of the NASAGA conference was challenging for some. However, the participants agreed that the four to five days were necessary to ensure having three core days to completely feel “in it.”  Though at times, NASAGA can feel mentally and socially overwhelming, participants felt that there never seemed to be enough one-on-one time with everyone or enough social interactions.  Most felt that a conference composed of 60 or so extroverted NASAGA members is perfect.

Despite the challenges, there were plenty of benefits to be associated with NASAGA.  These include the opportunity to “stay connected with people we love” and the fun nurturing environment.  Participants reported feeling “revitalized,” “encouraged,” and that “possibilities seemed, possible!”  Participants felt they learned a lot, connected with peer mentors, and acquired new tools to make them more competitive in the marketplace.  They reported a positive return on their investment  – noting that, “the best things cost you something.”  In conclusion, it was “way worth it!” as one participant enthusiastically exclaimed.



After experiencing Play Talking Stick, participants brainstormed ways it could be used to support training.  It is a good tool for a check-in or debrief after an activity.  It could be used in conflict resolution to better understand the dynamics of the situation.  It could be used as an introduction activity that allows people to share their experiences and feelings.  It can be used in organizational behavior situations to create a safe environment for sharing.   It can be used as a collaboration tool to help executives and mid managers share their thoughts and bring together disparate departments such as marketing and operations.  It is a brainstorming tool and can also be used with restorative circles.  Overall, it was concluded that, through Play Talking Stick, a more holistic, integrated, complex picture of an organization, department, or event can emerge.


Tamara Stenn can be reached at

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