Recently after attending a Scrum Alliance webinar on “Best Practices in Coaching,” I was reminded of my experiences teaching Acting students at university, and how I used changing status to help them achieve their best.
Status refers to the position or rank of someone within a particular group or community. I believe it was Canadian Keith Johnstone who introduced the idea of “playing status” to theatre improv teams. It is used to create relationships between characters onstage, and to change those relationships to move a story forward.
Status can be indicated through position, posture, facial expression, voice and clothing. It is a fascinating tool for any trainer or coach to use.
At the beginning of a semester with new students, I would invite them to sit on the stage floor in a circle with me. I would welcome them, discuss my expectations of their learning, and tell them what they could expect from me. We’d go over the course syllabus and I’d answer questions. I purposefully put myself in an equal status to them, as a way of earning their trust, because the processes of acting* requires huge amounts of trust. I also wanted to establish a degree of respect in them for the stage by all of us being in a “humble” position on the stage floor.
However, when I would introduce a new exercise to them that required them to go beyond their comfort zones, I would deliver instructions from a standing position while they were seated. By elevating my status, I conveyed the importance of the exercise, and it was a signal that it was not something they could opt out of. In this way, I could help them to exercise their creativity to a greater extent.
Another way I encouraged my students to take risks was to take risks myself. Sometimes I would illustrate an acting exercise by doing it myself first. For those few minutes I became a colleague with my students, one of them, equal in status. If I could “make a fool of myself” (which is how it may look to an outsider), then they could too.
I had one student who had great potential, but who took on the role of class clown and would not give it up. He fought against going deeper and getting real. One day in an exercise where they had to “own” a line of dialogue, I had him in a chair onstage, while I and the rest of the students were seated. He had to repeat the line of text until it resonated with him and became real. After some minutes, nothing was changing in him. In desperation had him turn his chair around so his back was to us. I then indicated to the other students to quietly leave the room. He could hear something happening but was confused about it. He was not able to turn around and look.
When I allowed him to turn around it was only him and me left in the theatre. I had him go through the repetition exercise again. Without an audience, and with me still seated, he finally broke through the wall he had erected and connected with the line of text from his inner self. It was a wonderful moment of truth and vulnerability. I then allowed the other students back in, and had him find that connection again with the students there. He was able to do it.
He is grateful to me to this day for helping him get beyond his comfortable role as clown to become a serious actor.
When training or coaching, it seems to me there can be huge value in playing with status. Sometimes taking a lower status, an equal status, or a higher status, can move a team or upper management into discovering whatever may have been blocking the process. Again, there are many ways to indicate status and even a status change to effect progress.
In his book, “Improv-ing Agile Teams,” Paul Goddard makes some important observations about using status. He writes: “Even though status is far less obvious than what is portrayed on stage, individuals still can take small steps to encourage status changes within their own team. For example, asking a team member who exhibits lower status behaviours to take ownership of a meeting or oversee a process not only boosts that person’s confidence but also increases status among peers…these subtle actions can help make lower-status team members feel more comfortable when expressing new ideas or exposing hidden problems.”
A colleague reminded me of a 1975 publication called “Power: How to Get It, How to Use It,” in which author Michael Korda gives advice about facial expression, stance, clothing and innumerable ways to express “power.” The idea of using status in the context I’m writing about is not about gaining power, but about finding ways through one’s own status changes to help unlock the capacity and potential of others.
How can a coach use status to help someone in management who is blocking change? Is someone on a team not accepting what others have to offer because s/he is keeping his/her status high? Is a Scrum Master necessarily a high-status team member, or rather a servant to the team (low status)?
I am curious if any coaches or trainers out there have used status in a way that created growth and change.
*Good acting is a matter of the actor finding the truth in oneself as it relates to the character he or she is playing. It requires vulnerability and courage to step out of one’s known persona and take on another as truthfully as possible. Inherent truthfulness also applies to work in any other endeavour.