Talanoa--Talking from the Heart

Interview with Dr. Sitiveni Halapua

Dr. Sitiveni Halapua is director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Hawaii. He has been instrumental in developing and promoting the indigenous Polynesian dialogical approach of Talanoa--"storytelling without concealment."

Can you give us a brief summary of your concept of Talanoa?

With other forms of dialogue, you decide an agenda, and the agenda itself restricts the issues and draws up the boundaries within which you carry out your meetings. For instance, if we have a meeting about the constitution, people start off with an agenda. But suddenly somebody starts talking about something else. Normally in a meeting, we would say, "That is irrelevant." The agenda becomes a form of control, almost predetermining the way the meeting is going, and consultation is carried out in order to arrive at what you already preconceived. Talanoa does not have a preconceived agenda. It is very open, you can tell your story. Prior to the advent of Western civilization and the coming of the missionaries, Talanoa was how our history was created. Nothing was written. Anybody could tell his or her story about what was important to him or her, what makes him or her feel good, happy and sad.

But the trick about Talanoa is that it must be facilitated. The output of the Talanoa is based entirely on what the person is talking about. If somebody wants to talk about the constitution, he can talk about it; if somebody wants to talk about politics, he can; if somebody wants to talk about fishing, he or she should be allowed to talk about fishing. You can talk about whatever is important to you.

My role as a facilitator is to extract the important points and then put them back to the person, and if the person says, "Sorry, that is not what I meant," then we have to change it before we actually record it.

The reason I think Talanoa is not used is because it is not easy. It is much easier to run a meeting, because you design your agenda to achieve what you want. I am amazed with what we have done with Talanoa in Fiji and in the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, in their economic reform. If you give people the opportunity, and they know you respect their voice, they will tell you their stories; that is a universal human phenomenon.

It may sound and look a bit chaotic, and sometimes it takes a little bit longer, but it is better to have two or three days than to try to rush the meeting in one or two hours, and no one says anything. You say now they all agree, then you find out later they didn't. So it may take a little bit longer, but you allow people to speak. Meetings restrict people from telling their stories, because you would say we have two hours to talk about this, and anybody else who wants to talk about something else, can't--it is irrelevant, this is our agenda. This is a form of manipulation to get what you want.

Talanoa has been around for some time, but you have structured and used it very effectively. How did you start?

I was searching for what can bring this diversity together. I thought, let's have a look at our ancestors, because our ancestors must have done something right, otherwise we would not be here today. Then I said it must relate to Talanoa, because when you sit down and share your stories, someone will be talking about yam growing, another person will talk about religion and God. . . . But that one process allows for the diversity, the way we live our lives, our culture. Then I started working on Talanoa to develop it, because you have to articulate it, otherwise non-Pacific Islanders will not understand the philosophy behind Talanoa. So I am writing about it, as well as practicing and implementing it--the theory follows the practical application.

["Guardianship" by Ian George, Cook Islands]

The first time we tried the Talanoa was in the Cook Islands in 1996 when the country was economically bankrupt. The Asian Development Bank had already come up with a model for economic development, and the Prime Minister asked me if there was anything wrong with the model. There was nothing wrong, but how would you know that the people of the Cook Islands will buy into this model? I said, let's have a Talanoa with the main stakeholders, and I proceeded to organize a dialogue with various groups--women's groups, environment groups, outer islands, churches, economists, you name it. They came together and they dismantled this model, then we reconstructed it, and that was what the Cook Islands used for their reform in 1996-97, and they are still using it today.

After that, there was the coup in Fiji in 2000 and I went there and I used the Talanoa, and now we are working in the Solomon Islands and using the same model. It is important to note that Talanoa is not a solution, it is not an end result, but it is a process through which you are likely to achieve what is common to the people.

Does it end with consensus?

Consensus is a Western concept, and too often some just sit back and never say anything, then the chairman says, "We have a consensus." Talanoa is not about consensus, the outcome is not predetermined, and you have your faith and trust and respect the people. Eventually there will be an outcome. If you respect and trust the people you are talking with, you will get the outcome. To me ultimately it is based on respect and trust. That is what Talanoa is.

This interview is republished from Matangi Tonga Online with permission.