I was invited to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory of Australia. Tennant Creek is a very remote township of 3,000 people, being 520kms by road from the nearest airport at Alice Springs. The population is 60% Indigenous.
Whilst there, I was invited to work with the Board of Winanjjikari Music Centre, a small very successful organization supporting Indigenous musicians.
The Board consists of twelve Indigenous men, average age about 45, most of whom live in small communities, each of several hundred people, in the desert up to 200 kms from the town. These communities and their people are extremely impoverished and live in third-world conditions. I confess to have not worked with Indigenous people before, was aware that these people are culturally very different, and the men were not warmed up to my presence.
The Caucasian music technician briefly introduced me, explaining that I was going to share with them a different way of conducting a meeting. With some trepidation I introduced myself and then briefly explained the ‘Co-operative Conversations’ techniques. The men listened without saying anything. Their folded arms and downcast eyes gave me no clue as to their comprehension or otherwise. Feeling uncomfortable with the silence, I stopped talking. Silence followed. Nobody spoke, and, in my discomfort, I waited for the ground to swallow me up.
After what seemed like ages, one of the older men picked up the talking ball [A CC tool], slowly rolling it around in his hands. After several minutes, he spoke quietly, but clearly. ‘Humph’, he said, followed by a long pause. ‘This could help us hear from some of these younger fellows who don’t say anything.’ My relief was palpable. Then he picked up the sand timer [another CC tool]. Again long silence was followed by a short, clear utterance. ‘This could stop old fellas like me talking too much,’ he said with a grin.
The whole room relaxed, the meeting proceeded using the tools, and was very productive. Projects were identified, priorities determined and responsibilities allocated.
That evening, at my motel room, there was a knock on my door. Outside stood two of the men from the Board meeting. I invited them in and small talk gradually shifted to the Board meeting. One of the men, Joe, asked me if I’d ever used ‘Co-operative Conversations’ in indigenous communities. I said ‘no’ and explained that today was the first occasion I’d worked with indigenous people. ‘It works very well’, he said. He then asked if I could coach him and his companion, Brendan, on how to do it, so they could take it back to their respective communities and teach others. ‘It will help us talk to each other, without havin’ fights,’ he said.