This is an article that highlights one of the exercises used within a course on assertiveness and open communication within Centrum Vaktherapie called Skillslab. If you are interested in developing yourself or helping others develop themselves this article will give you some practical knowledge! This article is part of a series of articles on practical exercises around self-curiosity and assertiveness.
Ask one of the participants (6 or more) for a concrete and personal example around a difficulty they have experienced while communicating with another person. (The person who comes up with the example will be referred to as the protagonist, from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning ‘player of the first part, chief actor’.) This example is briefly discussed and then played out briefly between the protagonist and the person playing their counterpart who is seated across from them. Next to this duo is seated a second duo, who get the instruction to closely watch the person to their left and when it’s their turn to play, amplify the behavior that was most noticeable to them while repeating the same scène. Variations of this exercise can be found at the end of this article.
Languages are beautiful diverse things, and there are no languages without words that are borrowed from others (Although Ojibwe, an Algonquian American Indian language comes close!). Dutch has ‘borrowed’ the word ‘feedback’ from English even though the translation ‘terugkoppeling’ means exactly the same thing; the comparison of the effect with it’s original intent.
For most people the word feedback has a quite neutral connotation, which is very useful in sensitive social situations.
This connotation might be so neutral because the term comes from electronics;
Feedback: 1920, in the electronics sense, “the return of a fraction of an output signal to the input of an earlier stage.” Transferred use: “information about the results of a process” is attested by 1955. (www.etymonline.com)
I explain the origins of the word feedback here for a specific reason, when teaching others to give and receive feedback often people run into two problems:
People take the feedback personal and interpreted it as negative criticism. When people listen with a mindset that tells them the messages they will hear will be negative criticism they are more likely to experience negative feelings towards themselves or the person giving the feedback (such as anger or disappointment).
The other result is that they disregard the feedback without reflection because it’s easier to tell yourself that the other person was in the wrong then dealing with difficult to process information.
Both of these possible difficulties can be part of the exercise by simply explaining the denotation (dictionary definition) and then explaining the word in the context you are using it. Par exemple; I could say that a useful aim of feedback is to try to improve the relationship between the giver and receiver. This gives the word a different connotation then if said a useful aim of feedback is to protect your boundaries. Thinking about the (subjective) meaning of the concept of feedback can also be a useful tool during the exercise, since it brings up feelings and thoughts around feedback people might have and gives you lots to work with!
One of the key points of this exercise if the intensifying of particular points of interaction between two people. Intensifying is a much used theater technique to create dramatic effect, draw attention or create tension.
After the protagonist explains the example, I will ask the person sitting opposite of them if the example gives them enough information about the role they are asked to play. They then are instructed to improvise for a minute or so around the example that has just been outlined.
This request requires the participants to have a certain comfortability with themselves, the group and/or group leader or improvising in a theatrical context. Comfort (in a therapeutic context more often referred to as safety) is something you can manifest as a group leader by exhibiting qualities such as confidence or consideration of others. There are many small interventions you can try out during the exercise to increase the comfort (or safety).
○ Playing a difficult part, like playing the second person in the duo that starts.
○ Limiting the duo’s to using one sentence, to lower the threshold of ‘playing’ in front of the group.
○ Starting with a practise run where only one thing is amplified, like the volume.
○ Limiting the time that couples have to play the scéne, increasing the tempo of the exercise.
○ Asking the first duo to play it mildly happy and letting the other duo’s increase only the emotion.
○ If one person has trouble playing you can give them a different role, like director or that of an observer who can give feedback afterwards.
“Theater is an art of the present. It exists only in the here and now. It is the art of intensifying the relational present, or rather, of intensifying all the instances of interaction occurring at the present moment between subjects relating to each other in different ways.” Czertok, Holbraad & Elliot (2016, p..51)
An interesting thing about this exercise is that you ask people to enlarge what they see, which means that is very much in the eye of the beholder what becomes the end result. In some ways it can be likened to Chinese Whispers. The original intent of the protagonist can get quite ‘lost in translation’. This adds a very lighthearted element of playfulness. What also happens is that people get confronted with the way they communicate or express themselves. You can think of a person looking down occasionally when speaking in round one, and by the third round this is amplified to nervously avoiding all eye-contact.
In between the playfulness, it is the job of the facilitator to fish out the important bits, to guarantee an atmosphere in which everyone is respecting each other. They have to pay attention to the protagonist and ask them what happens while they watch their scéne transform swiftly in front of their eyes; is it funny, is it spot-on? Is it painfully confronting?
Another thing you can ask or advice is that people change places in the scéne, the protagonist might be enticed to play a bigger more expressive version of themselves or can take on the role of the opposite part, and feel what it’s like on the other side.
There is much space for alterations and improvisation around this exercise, and it is important to have clear what you want to achieve. Do you want to have the people learn from each other how to give feedback or do you want someone practice self-assertiveness? With a specific goal in mind the exercise can look completely different.
I will outline an example where the protagonist experiences difficulty in expressing something.
Even if the initial expression of the protagonist is very small, the others will intensify the expression. This can be very gratifying for the protagonist to watch, and to realise that you were the example and inspiration for the behavior you are now witnessing can feel good. The enlargement also creates examples for the protagonist, of how to express things in different ways. You can ask the protagonist to switch seats with the person sitting next to them, so they are invited to express themselves more than the person who starts. Even if this is difficult, you can play with this as well. The third person in the row can again intensify what he or she sees in you, which might mean that the expression gets less overall.
It is also possible to work the other way around, and ask the participants to make the things they observe most clearly in their neighbor more subtle. This can be helpful when the protagonist is generally too aggressive in their feedback.
You can also use a variation of this exercise as a crazy warm-up! The facilitator chooses a fictional starting scène, the others amplify. But as soon as couple one is done they have to run to the end of the line to observe the last couple and continue playing. When it get’s too intense the facilitator can ask the participants to decrease the intensity of what they observe. A great warm-up for the original version!