Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!