The Spoons & Feathers Principle/Phaenomenon

The Spoons, Beads, and Birds Phenomenon

Towards unconditional empowerment, co-creation, and appreciation cultures:

SHARING & GIFTING: Donation Dialogues – the antidote to distribution and moderation formats in conversations

Heiner Benking, September 2015 (Version 4.2)


Some traditional people somewhere have not only used tokens or units as a currency- for example, shared cowry shells and coins, but they have also used other units like pieces of stone, fur, and also feathers, spoons, straws, cones, stones, seeds, eggs, etc. even keys or chips!

We have used even virtual tokens in virtual conferencing, see: Stammtisch 3.0

I would like to know where and how this is used traditionally and I am aware that these tokens have a symbolic deep meaning, like the wampum beads among the First Nations.

In this essay we are not talking about a unit of value to support trading, like a currency, but about a unit which signals a “credit” entitling a person to something which empowers and provides attention, or works like a privilege and encouragement. It is important to clarify that we are not talking here about a fair sharing of pieces of a real/physical cake in a way everybody gets his/her part, with portions that are either larger or smaller. We are talking about a very special application of “time-credits in meetings”- please check out the collection done in the Union of International Association by Anthony Judge1 in the 90s. This sharing of time, ideas, attention, appreciation, etc. is something very special, because it is an intangible value which sometimes can be shared and even grows very fast, call it viral, as it is a leverage point which helps to make scales differences that matter!

Getting back to sharing and granting time, attention, and interest:

With tokens we can make sure that nobody speaks longer than his/her time-allotment allows/provides. This is a special turn or add-on, a “Kunstgriff” that we do in Magic Roundtables. You are not encouraged to use up “your” time, but strongly encouraged to focus on a topic that someone else in the group has just suggested as a topic to be discussed more in depth. Tokens in the group are distributed equally in the beginning; everybody in the circle or in the audience has the same number, like 60 for 60 minutes, depending on how long the group agrees to sit together. After the introduction, everyone is asked to give units to the person who could best enlarge or explain their topic or answer their question. We then see that a qualitative, gravitational accumulation takes place. Some have more; others have less time to provide details and frameworks. The only rules are- that you can only speak when you have time-credits, and you can anytime dedicate or transfer units to a person you feel should speak, because your time would be better spent having someone else have the word. This is an open, self-organized, transparent, embodied, dynamic, and encouraging method which is not only democratic, but is called “Living Democracy”, that could be defined as a brief open-space with some other rules, in a much shorter time-slot.

There are as many tokens in the room as the groups want to spend time together, by doing the experience just once or repeating it several times.

You can find below procedural steps and links for the rules of the Game which we have been using for some time:

Each person is given an equal number of beads, stones, or any tokens representing equal units of time. The total meeting time is divided into units matching the distributed tokens, thus valuing them. Each member then introduces her/himself, and if desired, offers a topic for dialogue. Members give then tokens to those whose proposals can offer to the group a larger selection in order to empower voices and joint interests, and enlarge the flow of dialogue. This voting or encouragingcontinues as topics generate more or less empathy or concern. As others join in the conversation, they can also receive tokens as encouragement to continue with their line of thought. This open, transparent format can encourage inhibited people to participate and minimize domination by authoritarian types. In case of unexpected changes in the meeting’s duration, the tokens can be re-/de-valued inflated/deflated to match the remaining available time. This method is one approach highlighted in the paper by Anthony J. N. Judge: Time-Sharing in Meetings. It provides some general orientation and presents solutions and implementations over the years.

The difference:

The unique difference to other “time-credit” methods (See is that tokens don’t simply represent speaking time as a personal budget or allotment you use up to the very end, but to delegate and focus attention and interest by giving time to encourage and empower individual offerings to the group in a dynamic fashion. Group interest is higher as the value or quality of attention increases by these "floating" embodied tokens which are given as presents or signs of encouragement during the process.

Again: The procedure:

All participants sit or stand in a circle. Sometimes with an inner and outer ring, and often with spaces left so that people can move into the circle when they have received time credits. Typically a moderator or a volunteer who knows the process will act as a time-keeper and independent guardian of the common interest of the group.

Next there is an introductory round of brief proposals of issues or topics (1-2 minutes maximum) that the participants want to expand on if they get "encouragement" tokens. All participants and observers are then invited to give tokens to those whose proposals feel most important or worthy to discuss in the session. The moderator distributes tokens equaling the minutes planned for the roundtable. For example, with 60 minutes sessions and 10 participants, each person receives 6 tokens (if there are 30 people are in the room, each one receives 1 token or 2 tokens if there are 60 people).

After this snapshot round of offerings to the group, the moderator invites people to give their interest or empowerment tokens to the person they feel should speak up, possibly accompanied by a certain focus or question.

This speaker can speak for as long as there are tokens, which the moderator collects or monitors as “used up” by visualizing the time already used from the visible "budget". The speaker can continue if he/she receives more tokens while speaking. Someone else might then want to add onto the subject until his/her time budget is used up.

Short interventions while someone is speaking are not punished or discouraged because they might clarify the issue. But, they are watched carefully by the moderator as they might interfere with the line of thought or the flow of the topic under discussion. Therefore, they are considered, even when adding only 3 words or one sentence, as a full sentence or one token used.

This method can be considered a self-organizing, open, transparent, dynamic, and embodied way of participation and empowerment which cultivates differences and fosters co-creation. Here is more relevant information and a Timeline of selected events.

We know that Native Americans passed around a talking stick, but did they consider having as many talking sticks as minutes, and visualizing attention and interest in order to co-create and empower? We played this game as “time is running out”, and introduced the concept that you pass the stick to someone you felt should talk during the time you received from another person. The whole idea is called Magic Roundtables (see the rules of the game)! It has been played now for some years. Now consider your allotted time melting the moment you start talking! And do not forget to have your words float in the circle until the right word comes at the right time, building and knitting a fabric of meaning. This empowers the un-heard and un-thought. It allows voices that matter to participate in reaching “mount awareness”, and make us aware that we as earthlings were given 2 ears and one mouth, not all mouth, no ears as we see with all those “talkers” these days.

This little booklet and essay is about empowerment, not just participation; it is about co-creation and not just giving and sharing, it is about “unconditional” giving, with no expectation except the joy of learning and growing and the spreading of ideas and insights. This is easier with intangible cultural expressions, contagious information and wisdom, as we experienced that so it can spread fast and grow without . It is harder with physical things, where you distribute, splitter, share, and sometimes even use up and finish.

You might have heard about the fairy-tale of the “Small People of Sabedoo”. It is about some people in the old days who had each a bag of little pieces of fur, soft and tender patches that were nice to touch and great to feel. They were also great to give to others as a present which they can also enjoy and raise up their spirits. This story has a lesson for us, especially about how and why this tradition was stopped and how other feelings and ways and means entered into the worlds. It is highly recommended!

Over the years, we have been tempted to use shells and straws, sponges, coasters, cards, seeds, nuts, or any other kind of tokens and units, and have recorded it when introducing the “Magic Roundtables”. The most meaningful are the straws and seeds as they convey a similar meaning to the need or the unit you can let grow. See the “Seeds of Change” initiative and Viewsletter mentioned below.

At other times we used spoons, cones, feathers, shells, sticks as these are universal “units” of value. Having many spoons makes you feel rich and flexible in the kitchen and in life. But this is very different in different cultures. A German woman farmer, for example, is given a “Spoon of the Kitchen” when she retires or goes on the “AltenTeil”. The young wife of her first son takes over. So, to have many precious and useful spoons is a great thing. Unfortunately, there is at least in Germany a saying that “Giving your spoon away” means you are going to die. We tried to consider the fact that there could be some lesson in having many spoons and giving like seeds to further generations and positive ends without end. But, unfortunately, this “negative” co-notation prevails, at least in Germany. Maybe there are other more positive examples elsewhere?

Besides, there is a WOODEN SPOON MUSEUM2, possibly unique in the world, in Germany in Bad Dürkheim. Perhaps this is a beginning for spoon appreciation and sharing civilization. Let’s examine these ongoing discussion and the unearthing of the COMMONS. The ALMENDE – is another interesting development. It has to do with trust over time and we need to clearly distinguish between tangible and intangible “objects” or “units”. Intangible is the information that expands and travels faster than it is shared. It is not used up – like the “units” we give as presents, like a piece of cake. Does thissomething like a “heureka” moment by an individual in retreat or as part of his/her dreams? Or does it need a group or situation/instance which triggers and let the people subsume, resonate, and bring ideas into new spaces or “realms”?

Another issue is what are units? Feathers are units; wings or compounds are assemblages, organs, bodies, extremities. So, by sharing more complex objects or constructs, like in a community over generations – Elinor Ostrom COMMONS and no-walls, it reaches another level and needs further consideration. This is the same as how the people around the Madrigal Sea share Mother Earth's beauty or dispose Mankind’s debris. See “Poetic Reminiscence – The Worlds”.

We are entering here into another discussion: are we talking about grants or granting, giving, gifts and donations? Does the philanthropic turn of foundations and trusts, even co-operations which create community sustain the survival of any polis or habitat? You might want to read this 2 interviews also published in Institut für soziale Dreigliederung: Interview with Manfred Kannenberg: Schenkende Wirtschaft. - Gifting Economy and this article by Georg von Canal: Alterndes Geld versus Schenkgeld - Aging versus Gifting Money.

In a Nutshell:

This paper is about a Currency for trust, reputation and encouragement, giving voice and power to make a difference. It is about sharing, caring, daring and community building! It is about making intangible/immaterial issues real or concrete by weaving a fabric of commons. Maybe this is what we call culture and civilization: shared contexts and situations.

I was recently reminded that the Wampum Beads are a nice image of what I want to say. It is not about trade value – but with a vista towards a gift ecudomy across scales! For “Ecudomy” check: Ignorance of Compassion?

In circles with traditional people I have often heard in the closing circle the word “gifting circle” and I added that this is an “open” gifting circle with old and new approaches and means, but toward common ends. What is close to is called commoning nowadays. The general frame and the challenges we covered in honor of Elinor Ostrom are here:

For this effort, in our little booklet, we felt that more positive slants are associated with shells and even more with feathers. We called that “Roots and Wings” people understand and need feathers to fly and can receive colorful birds done as presents out of the joy of giving for free and without expectations, encouragement, and curiosity.

More on co-creation and empowerment, and also an early story about the one beautiful Island Earth are available. Just start reading and follow the links and check the next files in this section.

We recommend the „Seeds of Change“ Viewsletter, the Seeds of Change blog, and furtherstudy online:

1Time Credits in Meetings Anthony Judge and note there the description of using „empowerment“ tokens from 1995 by the authors of this booklet.

2Wooden Spoon Collection, recognition of UNESCO, Paris “World Cultural Heritage“