I learned an exercise in 1979 as a member of the Paulist Leadership and Renewal Project that I have used ever since to help people understand some of the dynamics of how individuals make choices in a group, how their behavior is influenced by the assumptions they make, and how what they do may be influenced by what other people say. The exercise is also a wonderful way to bring about greater multicultural awareness within a congregation. It works best with groups of eight to twenty people, and you will need about forty-five minutes to do the exercise and to process it. You need a room large enough for people to comfortably move from end to end without furniture in the middle.
Begin by gathering everyone in the center of the room. Tell the group:
“This is an exercise about making decisions and noticing the decisions of others. In this exercise there are no right or wrong decisions. You will be invited to make a series of choices between two options. Choose whichever option makes the most sense to you today. You might make a different choice at another time. When I offer you the choice, I will say, ‘How do you see yourself? Are you more like choice A or choice B?’ Those who see themselves more like choice A will go to one end of the room. Those who see themselves more like choice B will go to the other end of the room. When I ask you to move, please go in silence to your end of the room. If you are unsure which choice to make, go with your first inclination. I will offer you five pairs of choices and we will pause after each choice, so you will have a chance to say why you made your choice if you wish to do so. I think you will find this exercise to be fun. Are you ready to begin?”
Assuming that people are ready to begin, continue by asking, “How do you see yourself? Are you more like a kite string or a clothesline?” Pause for a moment to let people think. Repeat the question again if necessary. Then continue, “Kite Strings to this end of the room (point to one end). Clotheslines to that end of the room (point to the other end).”
When people have moved, invite them to remain silent for a moment and to notice the distribution of people by saying, “Notice who is in the same group as you and who is in the other group.”
The first time, begin to process the first choice by starting with the larger of the two new groups. This avoids putting people from the minority group on the spot at the beginning of the exercise. Start with a general question. For example, if the kite strings are the larger group, say, “Let’s hear from the kite strings. Does anyone want to say why you see yourself as a kite string?” If you have a very talkative group, you might invite them to keep their answers brief, a sentence or two. Follow each response with a “Thank you” or “I see” or “That’s great”—some positive response that let’s people know their choice and their reasoning about it are okay.
Not everyone needs to explain his or her choice each time. The number of responses will depend on how many people are involved in the exercise and how much time you have allowed for it. It is important, however, not to cut anyone off and to be sure that people who are shy or introverted have a chance to speak. As the exercise progresses, you can ask if there is anyone who has not spoken earlier. This is particularly important when a large number of people are involved in the exercise.
After you have heard from the first group, assuming they are the kite strings, invite people from the second group to respond by saying, “Now let’s hear from the clotheslines. Will someone tell us why you see yourself as a clothesline?” I often move near the group I am questioning, especially if the group has only one person or a small number of people. Follow the same process of affirming the responses. As the leader, do not encourage competition between the groups. Competition frequently arises, and there will be an opportunity to discuss it, but it is best not to invite it. If the groups begin by being competitive, remind everyone that there are no right or wrong answers.
After everyone who wishes to speak has been given an opportunity to do so, call the entire group back to the middle of the room and offer the next choice. Always repeat the introductory words, “How do you see yourself? Are you more like choice A or like choice B?” Then point to the end of the room to which participants should move in silence. Give people the opportunity to speak about their choice after everyone has chosen. Begin with the smaller group sometimes so that as leader you are not implying that those in the majority should always be heard from first—thereby subtly indicating that they are better than the smaller group. If several people seem ready to speak at once, the leader should be careful not to set a pattern of calling on men (or women) first, white people before persons of color, older people before younger people, and so on.
The paired choices are:
|palm tree||Christmas tree (evergreen tree)|
|picture window||screened porch|
|quill pen||laptop (or computer)|
Processing the Experience
When the group has completed all five choices, I invite them into a reflection about the exercise as a whole. The purpose of the processing is to help people see how complex decision making is: how assumptions influence our choices, how people make the same choice for different reasons, how people can make opposite choices for similar reasons, how my “allies” on one choice may be opposite me on another choice, and so forth. Pedagogically, it is best to allow these insights to emerge from the group, by beginning with general questions. Begin by asking people what they observed, then invite them to comment on their insights and the meanings of what took place. Processing questions might include:
- What did you observe when we were doing this exercise?
- Where did you find yourself relative to other people?
- Were there any people who were always together in the five choices?
- What did you notice about the reasons people gave for their choices?
- Did competition enter into the choices or the explanation of the choices?
- Were people consistent in their choices?
- What did you learn about yourself and how you make decisions?
- Were you aware of making choices cognitively or affectively—with your head or with your heart?
- Did your emotions play a larger role in some decisions than in others?
- What was it like being in the majority? in the minority?
- Did you rethink any decision when you heard someone speak from your side?
- Did you rethink any decision when you heard someone speak from the other side?
- What have you learned from this exercise that might affect your participation in a group that makes important decisions, such as a church board?
- How might this exercise help you to recognize, understand, value, and celebrate differences?
I am increasingly conscious of this exercise’s power to help people learn to recognize differences and to understand those differences at deeper levels, steps toward valuing and celebrating diff
erences. I am amazed how such a simple exercise exposes people to their assumptions about differences and helps them get in touch with the common tendency to judge differences as better than or less than. The exercise also allows people to experience their emotional responses to differences and to reflect on them, which is a key component in the journey toward multiculturalism. When the exercise is carefully led so that competition is not encouraged, people often have a corrective experience that allows them to see the benefits of exploring differences. That exploration often offers people a model for valuing and celebrating differences at a later time when the stakes are much higher than telling others whether they see themselves as a kite string or a clothesline. It serves as a practice session for developing a repertoire of multicultural skills.
Exerpted from God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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