Let’s Whale – a new way forward in building a culture of respect, trust and parternship

Last week I used a new process with a group called peacemaking circles. While I have not been trained as a “keeper” my business partner, Dr. Dan Kaufman suggested to incorporate parts of the peacemaking circle process. His recommended the process to support the outcomes of the program and cultivate enhancing the interpersonal relationships.  Specifically, he suggested incorporating the talking circle into the design of the two full day programs.

Intervening Us vs. Them Workplace Environments

There are some in the group that have internal and external personal conflicts that created challenges for the rest of the group. Leadership did not have the resources or skill to manage this appropriately and as with most interpersonal challenges it had come to a point where some of team members were not speaking to one another. For those involved an “us vs. them environment” had been created.


This group has a high level of commitment to their work. This commitment is evident from their passion and engagement when they talk about what they do, the results they are getting with their clients and the difference it makes in their communities.  However, circumstances over the last year have diminished their ability to be effective in their work, manage and build strong relationships with each other and with those within their community or deal with the stress that comes with working within a dysfunctional team environment. The nature of their work is often isolating, and some are 2-3 hours away from their colleagues.  The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues about what they are experiencing had not been provided. As a result, they have not had the  opportunity to build relationships with one another, crucial to operating within a team-based organizational culture.  


Our organization was hired to support this group through the use of a Resiliency based program designed to both support their level of self-care as well as heal some of the challenges within the group.  Our first group meeting was about ten weeks ago.


As I walked into the meeting room right away, I knew the room needed to reset from a large 12-foot board room table into a smaller, more intimate round for the nine of us. Once that was taken care of, the AV was set, I was ready to greet the participants.  I had met and started to form relationships with all of the participants previously, so we were starting on a good solid foundation of relatedness.


At first there was a feeling of uncertainty within the group  as this kind of program was new to most of them. We had a hot breakfast, reconnected and as the energy seemed to transform into fun, laughter and relatedness, though there was still a sense of skepticism permeating the room.   We reviewed the objectives of the session and talked through those agreements that would guide us through the next seven hours. Our first exercise was introducing the peacemaking principles. Each had a card with one of the peacemaking circle principles printed on it. Each read their card out loud to the group and said what it meant to them. I filled in anything that was missing. Then we started with our first round of the talking circle. We used an easy question: “how are you doing right now?” Each had as much time as they wanted to respond. The talking circle began to create a space of honor, respect and active listening. We used a talking stick that was a beanbag whale the size of my palm. Many of them held the talking stick in different ways during their time. It was interesting to see how it got each person focused on what they wanted to say. By the end of the day, they were using the talking stick (whale) without me asking them to and using it as a verb, e.g., “Let’s Whale!”

Peacemaking Principles

For reference the following are the peacemaking principles:

  • Peacework for the inclusive community
  • Work on self, not to change others
  • Don’t pass on your pain to others
  • Transform your pain into positive action
  • Stand “in the fire” with others
  • Contribute to the wholeness of the community
  • Treat others as sacred
  • Build trust and relationships before arriving at issues and solutions


Over the seven hours we looked at some critical principles for increased resiliency; centering and grounding techniques, perspective and how to shift it, trust, empathy, blaming, needs and offers. This was building on a previous foundation of one on one coaching that would continue following the 1st session.

Setting Participants up for Success

Before our first day together, each participant was set up with the FSTEP – a personal effectiveness system that keeps focus on their Food, Sleep, Treatment, Exercise and Perspective,  and each had identified an area they wanted to set a goal.  The purpose of the in-person sessions was to: build their relationships with each other by first increasing their awareness of themselves and the impact their actions and behaviours have on others.


Between each of the principles, we would do a round of the talking circle. Each time, there was discussion about how each felt about what they had just learned, how it related to  themselves and how it could impact them individually and as a group.  Sometimes we went around twice as it was apparent that  those who went first found more to talk about and wanted to add their new awareness to the conversation.

Using the Talking Circle to Support Relationships

Any time a group experiences challenges within it; the talking circle is a great way to support building relationships within the group as well as leveling out any power dynamics that may exist, before trying to solve their problems.  I’ve noticed in my work with corporations, non-profit and government organizations that this is the norm – we go to fixing before building relationships. We are all problem solvers, and our default behavior is to fix what’s wrong without building our relationships and a foundation of trust within which difficult conversations can take place.  We usually have it backward – fix the program fix the relationship. The key is to work on our relationships first.

Pulling it all together

Our second and last day together was fabulous. Building on all that we had done together over the previous eight weeks supported the participants in many ways to arrive for the day with a new level of confidence, self-worth, and connectedness with each other.


We used the same circle principles and techniques and added a completion exercise, time management exercise, core value discovery, and acknowledgment exercise. The design of the day had the participants more active with two musical chair type activities, out for lunch, and a walk after lunch to get the muscles moving. The participants ended on a high note giving each other acknowledgments for who they are in the world and for the level of contribution they make to both the work they do as well as their communities.  Comments such as “normally, I don’t do well in the same room for 8 hours and today I feel totally energized after the session” were offered at the end.

Is this Sustainable? 

The question I have now is: is this sustainable? Can these individuals take what they have learned and incorporate it into their lives? Will they be better prepared for any stress they face? Only time will tell, and it’s my hope that the work we did together will make a difference for them in the future. We will survey again in 6-8 weeks to see if they are still using the tools and what might be needed. Resiliency seems to be a practice. It’s up to them now to support each other to ensure they are strengthening that muscle.


Peacemaking Circles reference:

In doing this work, we honor the legacy of the Tagish Tlingit First Nation in the Yukon and their partners. Mark Wedge and Harold Gatensby, Tagish Tlingit leaders, and Barry Stuart, Chief Justice in the Canadian Judicial system, have shared this work all over the world. As they teach others, they say,We pass this on to everyone as a gift to use to promote healthy communities.”



Start the conversation