Speaking Circles sets natural tone for open arms

by Angela Jeffs

It is Saturday afternoon, and we are in a pleasantly peaceful meeting room in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama.

Pamela Noda stands before a semicircle of participants and looks intently — but gently — into the eyes of each woman. (Usually there is a mix of both sexes.)

Pam begins by being with each person “in relational presence,” which means, she says, “that I make my eyes softly available so as to invite connection with each participant.” Then she asks us to close our eyes and imagine looking with positive regard into the eyes of someone else for 30 seconds. Click goes her trusty timer. She pairs us up and asks us to look into the eyes of our partner for another 30 seconds. Click. Now one minute . . . click.

Two and a half hours later, the group disperses with hugs and smiles. “A great success,” Pam and her partner, Mary Tadokoro, conclude.

Founded by Lee Glickstein in the U.S. in the late 1980s, Speaking Circles International (SCI) programs are designed to transform the way we communicate. On one level, the methodology focuses on the essential first step missing in traditional public speaking programs — the connection between speaker and listeners.

As Pam explains: “It’s a transformational relationship-based approach that provides a supportive listening environment where you learn to express yourself confidently and naturally without performance techniques. It’s about being totally present in the moment.”

Pam and Mary have much in common. They are both American (from Massachusetts and Colorado respectively). Both came to Japan initially as high-school exchange students. Both have lived here for close on three decades. And both live in Kichijoji with their Japanese husbands and families — Pam has two children, Mary three.

“Beginning with a library project, we worked together voluntarily to meet the needs of our children at the various stages of their lives,” Mary says. “Now that they are grown, we are turning our attention to the needs of individuals, couples, parent-children relationships, and indeed the whole family.”

Pam led the way professionally by beginning training as a personal coach in 2002; she earned certification last year. Often her work as a coach involved working with and addressing groups of people, which made her feel stressed and uncomfortable.

“I needed to overcome that fear to have the career I wanted,” she explains. “I’d tried other public speaking forums but they were so judgmental and competitive that all I could do was cry. With Speaking Circles, which I first heard of in 2004, only positive feedback is allowed. When I first stood up and moved forward to face the circle and speak, all I could see were gentle, accepting eyes.”

Having taken the basic training in Canada, she deepened her knowledge and experience with a second training in 2005. Pam is currently the only SCI-certified facilitator in Japan, and Mary (now a personal coach in her own right) is also planning to study for certification at some stage.

Together the two have created the umbrella organization they call Open Arms.

Mary: “Our mission is to provide support and opportunities that helps people nourish themselves and their relationships on a variety of levels.”

Taking the lead this time, Mary is preparing to launch Laughter Clubs in Japan. She became a certified laughter leader through founder Steve Wilson’s World Laughter Tour. “Laughter Clubs originated in India in 1995. The idea further evolved as Steve combined them with his experience in the therapeutic laughter movement in the West.”

She is looking forward to meeting fellow laughter leader Mark Iberg, who will be visiting Japan in late March. “The idea is that we launch Laughter Clubs with three one-hour sessions in the Kichijoji area on March 21st. Everyone is welcome.”

Laughter Clubs, she adds, are not about humor. They are about laughing to release tension, and include breathing and stretching exercises, relaxing in good fun, and developing attitudes that open the way to laughter and peace.

Mary and Pam offer many forms of certified coaching: relational (with families and couples), bicultural and bilingual. They also teach family effectiveness training — communication skills for families. All of their activities are grounded in respect and positive regard for self and others.

At the end of the Speaking Circles gathering, several members are happy to reveal what they gained from the experience.

B. has never felt so grounded. “It’s such a simple way of being with myself.”

K. says it’s like meditation. “The last time I came, I wrote haiku all the way home on the train.”

S. enjoyed standing in front of people going at her own pace. “Normally I’m fulfilling my audience’s expectations. Also for the first time I felt truly heard.”

One Japanese participant is radiant. “It’s astonishing. I feel great — calm and peaceful.”

This is clearly transformational work on many levels. When you stand up as exactly who you are, Pam explains, you can deliver a compelling message. “The methodology is such a bridge to authenticity that you can observe people moving from a state of stage fright to joyful self-expression, right before your eyes.”