Working with both sides

After a school board informational meeting the other day, I chatted with the moderator, Steve John. We talked about several aspects of the meeting, including the difficulty of working with both sides of an issue.

working with both sides
The Meeting for the Town/Community Center, Marlboro, VT. Photo by David Holzapfel. I’m the guy wearing a checked shirt.

It’s rare for groups larger than a few people to agree unanimously on an issue. Sometimes the group needs to make a choice between alternatives. Our school board meeting included discussion of an upcoming vote on whether to keep junior high students educated at our local school or have them “tuition out” to other schools. Strong opinions on both sides were evident during the meeting.

Sometimes there are win-win alternatives to win-lose situations, as I’ve described elsewhere. But sometimes there aren’t, and the group needs to make a choice that some members are going to be unhappy about.

Even though facilitators or moderators need to stay non-judgmental, in practice I sometimes agree more with certain points of view. Steve and I talked about how hard it can be to facilitate discussion on an issue when we have an opinion about it.

Learning from practicing facilitation

Though I find it difficult at times, one of the things I like about facilitation is that it challenges me to practice non-attachment to a perspective.

I probably don’t moderate contentious issues as often as Steve—who has decades of experience running public meetings—as my clients are mostly associations and non-profits. In my work, however, there are often underlying tensions between subgroups.

One common example is conferences where suppliers and practitioners attend the same sessions. Generalizing, suppliers (who also sometimes sponsor the meeting) are there to sell their products and services, while practitioners primarily want to learn from and connect with each other. This can cause friction between these two groups. Part of my pre-meeting work is to uncover, understand, and prepare for potential discord. This involves designing the meeting to respect the wants and needs of each group, and facilitating any sticky situations that surface.

Another example is when participants work for organizations of very different size or focus, have disparate ideas about the meeting’s goals, but have historically avoided discussing the resulting tensions with each other. My job, then, can be to open and facilitate uncomfortable but important conversations about the invisible elephant in the room.

Working with both sides and empathizing with all points of view is good practice for staying open to possibilities in my work and my life.

Image attribution: Photo [source] by and with the permission of David Holzapel.

A story about turning win-lose into win-win

turning win-lose into win-win

Turning win-lose into win-win? Wouldn’t you like to know how to do that? Read on!

Playing win-lose

As a kid I played chess. I was good enough to get on the school team (which included the soon-to-be-grandmaster Ray Keene, chess correspondent of the London Times since 1985) and even placed in the top ten for my age group in the London Chess Championships.

When I started to play I loved the game, but I slowly discovered that playing chess competitively took a huge toll on me. I equated my self-worth with my success at winning which led to severe stress at every school and regional competition.

I felt sure that playing chess was about win-lose. This conviction even spread its poisonous reach into casual games with my kids. I’d teach them the game and then find myself battling not to crush them and their connection with the game. Removing my queen to even the odds still didn’t change the fundamentals of how I played the game.

So I gave up playing chess.

For 25 years.

Last week, Bernie DeKoven told me how I could play chess again.

A week of improv

On turning 61, I gave myself a birthday present and flew to San Francisco for an improv intensive at BATS. For three days I was immersed in learning improv with sixteen other classmates and two wonderful teachers, Barbara Scott & Lisa Rowland. (I subsequently posted on Facebook that those three days were the most fun I ever remember having in my life that didn’t involve sex.) After a day reconnecting with my daughter who had moved to San Francisco nine months earlier, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network’s 2012 World Conference (AIN 2012), plunging into a four day exploration with 206 collaborators of how improvisation can be applied to facilitation, business, training, learning, spiritual practice, and much more. And there I finally met Bernie DeKoven face-to-face.

Bernie has spent much of his life exploring and championing the power and importance of games and play. In the 1960’s Bernie created the five-volume Interplay Games Catalog containing one thousand games. He went on to create the Games Preserve for the deeper exploration of games, wrote The Well Played Game, and became co-director of the New Games Foundation, designer of the New Games Training, an alternative to competitive sports that now is taught at almost every elementary school in the world.

We had met and connected online when I discovered his Deep Fun website and started retweeting some of his blog posts. Our in person meeting was everything I had hoped it might be. Bernie combines a childlike wonder and respect for play with a deep knowledge and seemingly effortless command of the myriads of way we can play and connect though the tool of games. Let’s just say, I enjoyed his company.

Bernie held two sessions at AIN 2012; one an exploration of play, culminating in a glorious game of the “pointless game” Prui, and the other an interview about his history and involvement in the New Games movement. During the latter, Bernie mentioned chess.

Turning win-lose into win-win in one minute

Chess?! A win-lose game, the very anti-epitome of the New Games movement?! Chess?!

Bernie said: “We used to have a chess board with a game going on it. With a note on the board: ‘white to move.’ Anyone could play a move and update the note.”

And just like that, Bernie shattered my life-long perspective of chess.

One way to turn win-lose into win-win

Anyone could play! Chess wasn’t a two-person game any more! Anyone could play!

When we open up a two-person game to multiple players who can take any side, the concept of win-lose disappears.

Another way of turning win-lose into win-win

And then Bernie added: “We also had this idea for rotating chess boards. If one side was ‘winning’ either player could rotate the board to swap the side you were playing.”

Wow! Chess could stay a two-player game, and yet—with one small change—not be win-lose any more.

When we allow “sides” to be flipped at will, a win-lose game turns into something else.

Thank you Bernie!

With a few sentences, Bernie helped me realize I could play chess again. Chess will no longer be a sink-or-swim experience for me. I can have fun with it!

I like having my beliefs flipped like that. Thank you Bernie!

What win-lose mindsets do you have? Could you flip them too?

Photo attribution: Flickr user government_press_office