How this simple and engaging exercise improves a teams productivity in challanging situations

A considerable number of teams and individuals that I’ve worked with have failed to reach satisfactory results and progress because of how they communicate. I’ve found that they commonly aren’t aware that communication is a substantial culprit. This is specifically true when the level of uncertainty in a situation or topic is considerable, e.g. when there’s high pressure on a team to deliver results or there’s vastly opposing opinions between team members on what decisions to take.

When I’ve found teams being in this situation I’ve discovered a simple and engaging exercise that considerably improves the teams ability to communicate more effectively. The exercise is based on Virginia Satirs concept around coping stances. 

Coping stances

In stressful situations or situations with considerable uncertainty it’s not uncommon for people to instinctively gravitate towards four distinct coping stances. Each stance comes with a specific set of behaviour and way of communicating that obstructs the team from constructive progress. Which stance a person instinctively gravitate towards is related to their upbringing, past experience in work & life, situation they’re in and people they’re with. Most people can identify themselves with one or two stances. The stances are:

Coping Stance Associated behaviour
Blaming Companies and criticises everyone else.
Avoids taking responsibility.
Potentially bullies.
Doesn’t except excuses and explanations.
Placating Apologises.
Takes blame for everything.
Agrees with everything.
Tries to please everyone.
Super resonable Looks for the correct answer.
Believes emotions are irrelevant.
Becomes impatient or irritated when
emotions are displayed.
Irrelevant Focuses on anything but the relevant topic.
Changes topics and distracts people by
e.g. making jokes.

Becoming more balanced

Luckily, with practice each person can shift from a stance that is coping into one that is constructive. This is done by acknowledging that each coping stance has a seed of strength (a.k.a. positive seed) and realising that each can be of paramount importance in making constructive progress in the team. 

Seed of strength
Strength seed Contributes with Instead of
Assertiveness Focus on goals and results Blaming
Empathy/Caring Diversity, inclusion Placating
Logic Thoughtful reasoning based on data Super resonable
Creativity Positive energy, outside of the box thinking Irrelevant

The next steps are to develop a) the insights into what circumstances the seeds are most valuable and to what degree and b) the practice of bringing the seed and associated behaviour into focus. Practicing involves both helping yourself and others in making the shift from coping to constructiveness, which the following diagram can help with. 

Role playing exercise

You will need at least 60 min to successfully facilitate this exercise.

  1. Explain that the intent with the exercise is to improve the communication within the team in difficult situations.
  2. Explain to the group that they’ll be doing a role playing exercise in groups of 4-5 people with the following senario: Everyone in the group will play either the role of Blamer, Placater, Super resonable or Irrelevant.
  3. Present and describe each coping stance/role and what behaviour is associated with each stance (according to the description from above).
  4. Explain why you’ve chosen these particular roles and where they come from. Just focus on the coping stances and the relevance of stress and uncertainty and leave out the part about becoming more balanced, which you’ll use during debriefing after you’ve run the exercise.
  5. Randomly assign each person a unique stance in a way that each person only is aware of their own stance. E.g. by having them draw a piece of folded paper from a bowl without showing it to anyone else.
  6. Remind them they need to stick to the behaviour that is associated with their stance during the exercise. 
  7. Have each group sit together in a circle.
  8. Provide a task for the group to achieve. E.g. “You are a management team in a startup whose user growth has declined severely the past month. You will now have a meeting where you need to figure out the root cause.” The task you choose is not super important as long it’s something they are ment to agree or align on.
  9. Ask them to start the exercise when everyone is ready.
  10. Stop the simulation after 10-15min.
  1. Spend around 10-15min to get the group to share their experiences from the simulation by asking them questions from the list below. You don’t necessary have to ask all of then. Just make sure you ask one at a time and have high engage in the conversation that follows.
    • How was that for everyone? / How was it to be in your respective stance? / How did the simulation make you feel?
    • Who had what role? How clear was it?
    • What behaviours and comments from others made you react the most?
    • What learnings or insights did you get from the exercise?
    • Thinking about your personal self, what behaviours do you relate mostly with from the simulation?
    • What do you believe would help people become more constructive in stressful situations/avoid ending up in a coping stance?
  2. After 10-15min present the concept of becoming more balanced by introducing the positive seeds and practicing diagram. Explain to the team that when they face themselves in coping they can become more constructive by shifting their stance with the help of the positive seeds and the practicing diagram.
  3. Ask the group in what situations they see the different seeds and diagram being helpful to them.
  4. After the following discussion ask them about their learnings and how they will apply them. 
  5. End the exercise by thanking them for their time.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions or you’d like me to facilitate a workshop with your team. If you facilitate it on your own I’d love if you shared your experience and learnings.

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