Drama might be the key to conflict resolution, says Sharon Paterson.
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That instant feeling of regret after a difficult conversation in the workplace is one that so many people experience. Whilst uncomfortable in the moment and in reflection, this can also indicate patterns of communication that pave the way to similar conversations in the future.
However, there is a remedy – drawn from the world of theatre and performing arts – which is not as widely understood or used as much as it could be within staff development, to help people manage potential conflict more effectively.
Theatre practitioners rehearse not only what they say but how they phrase a question or an opinion. Taken out of that context and into the workplace, senior leaders (especially, though this may also be applied to staff at all levels) can be coached to communicate and engage more comfortably and confidently with colleagues, aiming to achieve the best version of each challenging conversation that comes along.
Place the emphasis on planning how to behave, as well as on what to say, and on rehearsing the ability to summon the best version of each participant to suit each circumstance.
The principle of applied theatre practice means borrowing the skills of the rehearsal room to ensure that workplace conversations (particularly the most tricky ones) run as smoothly and effectively as possible. In addition, good practice can actually form a habit that staves off all sorts of untoward encounters in the first place.
These sessions, often using professional actors to plan and lead them, take different forms: one-to-one coaching in presentation and self-preparation techniques, tackling issues such as nerves, body language and vocal issues; ‘forum-theatre’ techniques where participants call out suggestions as to how the course of a conversation should run; and watching performances of difficult encounters in the workplace.
This approach is highly interactive, but without the pitfalls of role play which for most people can conjure up some horrific memories. Here are five tips for organisations thinking of planning and running staff development sessions using alternative applied theatre practices:
- Clearly explain the purpose. Training staff how to access the best possible version of themselves to take into the conversation or encounter they are planning is an important exercise for conflict management. Place the emphasis on planning how to behave, as well as on what to say, and on rehearsing the ability to summon the best version of each participant to suit each circumstance. There is also an opportunity to introduce techniques to develop the skills of keeping calm and managing emotions. For example, being very clear about what can and cannot be promised, and about what power and responsibility they have to meet requests, as well practical steps such as slow, silent counting and breathing deeply.
- Appreciate the art of listening. The ability to listen empathically to another person is a difficult skill to master, but when done well it has the potential to help resolve challenging situations. Showing carefully what good listening looks like, how moving and satisfying it can feel to be listened to, without interruption and with respect, can often be revelatory to many participants. Create opportunities for participants to share their thoughts around specific dilemmas they have seen played out, asking them to justify their positions, enabling them to hear the thoughts of their peers, and perhaps most importantly, change their minds.
- Examine different perspectives. Within the chosen scenario, cover a host of reflections on how to prevent confrontation and explore solutions generated by participants as they guide the scene and the actors towards the goal of engaged and considered resolution. The aim here is to encourage participants to examine the situation from different perspectives. Task the audience to stand alongside the characters, experiencing the world as they see it, voicing their thought processes. Adopt the director’s position to consider what this scenario might look like to a wider audience. What might they read from body language and tone of voice? How might behaviour be adapted to ensure that messages are more consistent?
- Mix it up as the session goes on. Stop and start the action – sharpening technique, changing the script, testing how a particular apology might land, challenging assumptions and habitual thinking that may not serve as effectively as taking a different approach. Ask participants to coach a character, taking ownership of their actor and working with them to achieve a desired outcome. Take the opportunity to stop action mid-scene and ask participants in the audience to rate the characters out of 10 in terms of their effectiveness in role, getting them to justify their scores and identify what changes might improve the outcomes.
- Seek the help of professional experts. Whilst this may feel out of the comfort zone for many in-house training and development teams, there are specialist applied theatre practitioners who can help organisations make this work. They use professional actors to bring scenarios to life and make them as compelling as possible, and commission scripts from professional writers and work with organisations to research their context and the environment – thus the situations feel immediately authentic.
Sudden fires will always start, but if colleagues can master the heat in their own moment, much of the pain is taken out of a potentially difficult situation, along with much of the stress that arrives in the anticipation of such situations.
About the author
Sharon Paterson is associate director of culture and engagement at Teesside University. This article was co-written with Paul Hessey and Mike Rogers, part of the University’s Leading Roles team.