An actions-based perspective
During a conversation we sometimes sense that it could be better. We might be aware that we are confused, disappointed, or that there’s something we should shift to talking about, and yet we cannot figure out what to change. In short, we’re thinking, “this conversation feels off.” We’re only human and a vague sense may be all we notice in the live moments of a conversation.
In his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs describes a four-player system first created by David Kantor. This four-player system can help us understand how conversations succeed, and therefore also how conversations might fail.
The four players of Kantor’s system are named for their roles. Try imagining people doing these things as I describe the roles. The four roles are: Movers, followers, opposers, and bystanders. Isaacs points out that without movers, there is no direction. Without followers, there is no completion. Without opposers, there is no correction. Without bystanders, there is no perspective.
Isaacs has this to say about successful conversation:
A healthy conversation […] consists of all four of these actions being used in balance. None is left out. And all the people in the conversation find themselves free to occupy any of the four positions at any time. […] Of course, in most conversations we find a mix of different energies. Someone might observe and then make a move. Or they might seem to follow and then oppose: “I like what you are saying, but I have a problem with it…”
When something feels off, we can consider which roles are present in the moment. Am I being a mover, and my guest a follower? Or are they perhaps being an opposer? All of the combinations of the roles are possible, including everyone being the same role at once. We can expand our thinking beyond what roles are present in the moment, to consider what roles have been present, and in what amounts, in the larger conversation. With some quick thinking, we might see an opportunity to bring a different role, perhaps one which has been missing or under-represented, into the mix.
My question for you is: What role do you most commonly assume in your conversations?