Archives for March 2013

Understanding A Complex Cast of Characters

grid of icons styled from iconic movie characters

Image credit

There are many lenses through which to understand personality types and people’s motivations, from Myers-Briggs to Values Modes to archetypes.

In my novel-writing research, I’ve discovered one which I thought had interesting parallels with any ‘cast of characters’ one might find in change work – that of Character Alignment.

Just as change work requires understanding of people’s motivations and values, defining those same things in works of fiction is integral to creating a robust, believeable character.

Incorporated in early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, Character Alignment enabled players to choose between three alignments when creating a character – lawful, neutral or chaotic:

Lawful characters think having an ordered society is important and beneficial
Chaotic characters don’t necessarily oppose this but think the freedom of the individual comes first
Neutral characters tend to judge such situations on a case by case basis

This is known as the ‘ethical’ axis, or where characters sit on the spectrum of order vs chaos.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a second ‘moral’ axis of good, neutral and evil was introduced, creating a nine-alignment matrix as follows:

lawful neutral chaotic (y axis) good neutral evil (x axis) colour character alignment matrix

Indiana Jones would be considered Lawful Good, James Bond Lawful Neutral. The Joker in Batman and Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter series would be considered Chaotic Evil; the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood would be considered Lawful Evil (or maybe Lawful Neutral) and Robin himself Chaotic Good; Pirates of the Caribbean’s Cap’n Jack Sparrow is Chaotic Neutral.

Applying archetypes to this matrix helps illustrate what each is about, and might help you begin to relate the kinds of ‘characters’ to people around you:

matrix with archetypes included (eg. rebel, dominator, crusader)

The best way to illustrate these archetypes is to use examples of well known casts of characters.

There are different versions created by different people based on their interpretation of the character(s) and the meanings of each different part of the matrix, but you can grasp the idea regardless (don’t worry about the text underneath each picture, just which character has been placed in which alignment).

Below are character alignment matrices for The Muppets:

visual lawful neutral chaotic good and evil matrix with muppet characters as examples

…and Alice in Wonderland:

character matrix for Alice in Wonderland

Now while this is all very interesting (and good for a giggle), what’s it got to do with creating change?

Everything, because these characters can be found in any group or organisation.

They won’t be brandishing swords, blowing things up or unleashing magic, yet the same basic motivational forces are there, in a 21st century guise. The Crusader, the Rebel, the Judge, the Dominator – and if you are truly unfortunate, the Destroyer – are all character types most of us have encountered (or been) at one time or another.

No person is completely one alignment, and people may shift in and out of alignment types depending on the situation. But being able to identify people’s typical alignment(s) will help you understand their motivations, how they will or won’t work, and offer insights into what they may do in a given situation:

Lawful characters tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition…On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.

Neutral characters have a normal respect for authority and feel neither a compulsion to obey nor a compulsion to rebel.

Chaotic characters follow their consciences, resent being told what to do, favor new ideas over tradition, and do what they promise if they feel like it. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.

What can you tell about the alignments of people around you? Do they act in accordance with the rules, or do they subvert authority? Do they act to secure their own interests, or those of the wider group?

Armed with this insight, you will know that appeals to uphold process may not work with neutral and chaotic types, of whatever flavour; that neutral types may be more difficult to predict than the others; that you may be able to work with a ‘lawful evil’ if you can frame things in a way that suits that person’s interest.

If this way of looking at people’s make-up and motivations has resonated with you, you can extend your knowledge of this approach by delving deeper into each of the nine elements of the ethical-moral matrix on Erick Edwards’s excellent site:


While some of the content is more applicable to game-playing character creation (such as references to whether or not a character is likely to kill) as distinct from how a character’s alignment affects their worldview or likely actions in organisations or groups, the overall characterisation is still relevant.

In each of the nine areas, he includes a chart about how that particular alignment sees all the others, which could be hugely helpful if you are trying to broker co-operation or understanding between different ‘characters’. For instance, Lawful Good aligned characters see Neutral Good as ‘humane but unreliable’; Lawful Evil characters see Lawful Good as ‘honourable but self-righteous’.

Understanding what makes yourself and others tick is often a learning curve in itself, but being aware of how different people see each other is a challenge on a whole new level.

Edwards also overlays the character alignment chart over that of the extensive values research undertaken by psychologist Professor Shalom Schwartz at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Schwartz developed the Schwartz Value Inventory (SVI) based on an extensive survey of over 60,000 people. The survey identified common values that acted as ‘guiding principles for one’s life’.

These ten common values grouped multiple values into a single category, which sit along two major axes – openness to change vs conservation, and self-enhancement vs self-transition:

schwartz's values model

One realisation I have had as a result of investigating character construction is that there is a wealth of psychological insight out there in the RPG community that people working in sustainability and other change areas could benefit from – so if you turn up to your next training session and there are some folks kitted out in Dungeons & Dragons gear, you’re probably in good hands!

group of live action role playing gamers, with bows, swords shields and costumes

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This post is for ‘Tim the Enchanter’ – not the Monty Python character, for whom he is named, but in-joke about a particular person who played a key role in scuttling more than one initiative that I’d worked for years on and cared about. I still haven’t worked out whether he was lawful evil or chaotic neutral. But stripped of his sword, he is not an influencer.

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Changemaker Profile – Neal Gorenflo, Founder of Shareable

headshot of Neal

This is the second in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.

Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and publisher of Shareable Magazine, a nonprofit online magazine about sharing. A former market researcher, stock analyst, and Fortune 500 strategist, Neal is co-editor of the anthology Share or Die: Voices of The Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis.

share or die cover

1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:

I’m the co-founder of Shareable, a nonprofit with a mission to turbocharge the sharing movement. We have two main activities, online publishing and community organizing, though our organizing work is in a pilot phase.

Through our online magazine, we hope to heighten awareness of saner alternatives to the global market economy and the social and environmental damage it creates. Shareable witnesses a movement of movements, each with the goal to democratize and even dematerialize the economy.

These movements include cooperatives, the commons, collaborative consumption, coworking, open source software, participatory budgeting, the commons, public banking, open government, and more. We publish stories about these movements from a personal perspective where possible.  And we offer the largest collection of sharing how-tos on the web. In this way, Shareable is as much a lifestyle magazine as it is about the big picture.

We hope to challenge the prevailing culture narrative in Western market societies that the path to the good life is based on individualism, competition and shopping. We argue that the good life is more likely to be achieved through community, collaboration and sharing.

I’m inspired by Saul Alinsky’s observation that the mainstream media makes the ordinary person feel like a small failure within a bigger failure. We hope to offer the opposite experience, that people start to feel like a success within a bigger success when they see practical alternatives in their personal lives and society.

2. What motivated you to be doing this work?

After decades of personal exploration and failed life experiments, I eventually realized I could not become the type of person I wanted to be, have the type of relationships I needed, nor could I realize my creative potential in a market society. The psychologically toxic value system of consumer culture, the competitive social relationships, and the inequality in every major institution were incredibly disempowering. If I boiled all this down to one thing that motivated me, it’s that I felt an unbearable loneliness.

Of course, I also realized that this wasn’t just my situation, that many others were in the same boat. This lead to the conclusion that the only path out was a collective path. I couldn’t get the life or world I wanted alone. It simply was not something that an individual could do. I need to find ‘the others’ as the saying goes, and get to work.  It sounds obvious, but it wasn’t an obvious conclusion for me at when I started.

Later, I realized that a movement that acted at the systemic level was necessary. This was much more than I originally bargained for, but the evidence was just overwhelming that a big systemic change was necessary.

Another important motivation was that I didn’t want to participate anymore in destroying people, communities, and the environment. And there was almost no way in America to do that without making an exodus from the status quo, which I’m finding is really hard to do completely, though my life experiments in sharing have led to an incredible boost in my quality of life.  I don’t feel so alone any more.

3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Working with people, and seeing what happens when they make a big change. What’s exciting about this movement is that a new sharing-based reality can be experienced in microcosm at the small group level, and when people get a taste of that, they want more. This can lead to much bigger personal changes and a commitment to help others. As an advocate, I frequently tell people not take my word about the value of sharing, to give sharing an earnest try and come to their own conclusions.

4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?

The biggest challenge is communicating about sharing in a way that’s broadly accessible. There’s a lot of cultural baggage that gets in the way. In American, there’s a skepticism about the value and practicality of sharing. We’ve been conditioned by trillions of dollars of advertising, our dysfunctional political culture, and our life in winner-take-all organizations to look only after our own individual interests. This conditioning can be mistaken for human nature, that that’s just the way we are. That fundamental belief is hard to challenge as on the surface there’s evidence for it.

My view, shared by many others, is that there’s something deeper at work, that it’s the institutions around us that shape our behavior, and that if we want different behavior, different lives and opportunities, we have to change our institutions or create new ones.

One the most important institutions to change is culture – the set of values, unquestioned assumptions, and stories that shape how we see and act in the world. We have some success at Shareable in telling stories that upend unquestioned assumptions about the way the world works. For instance, one of our most popular stories of all time is about how to travel without money, and have better experiences because you’re traveling without money.

5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?

I read Michel Bauwens’ answer to this question, and I couldn’t put it any better. That said, doing what he advocates is difficult. As he said, integrating conflicting perspectives is a social process and attention to process is critical. Herein lies the difficulty. We’re not taught how to make decision together democratically. Our most important institutions, from education to business to our healthcare systems, are driven by top-down decision making. This is why we just published a guide about how to make effective decisions together. There’s a well-justified pre-occupation with process in the guide. For the decision to work in practice, it’s important that everyone feels that they were treated fairly in the process whether the decision went ‘their way’ or not.

6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?

There’s one piece of advice that trumps all. There’s no substitute for total commitment. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can’t manufacture commitment. You have to feel it in your bones. It’s my experience that total commitment only comes from some serious failures and persistent reflection.

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5 Ways To Rescue Groups Gone Bad

You’re in a meeting, workshop or public forum. You may be the person facilitating the gathering.

All of a sudden, for reasons you may or may not have anticipated, things go pear-shaped.

People start going off-topic, attacking others or getting upset about a niche issue that’s only vaguely connected to the one on the table for discussion.

The temperature rises, the feeling of conflict ratchets up a notch (or few) and that horrible sense of discomfort threatens to undo whatever has been achieved thus far.

What can you do to get things back on course?

brother and sister inside the same t-shirt that has 'the we will get along t-shirt' written on the front

One critical action you can take to keep a group ‘on task’ is to set some ground rules at the very beginning of the session. This is best done by asking the group for their suggestions (ie. their rules) as to what is acceptable process, and to decide what will happen if a participant does not want to comply with the ground rules. For example, the group might agree that personal attacks will not be tolerated.

Write them up on a board or butcher’s paper where everyone can see them, if possible. If there is any breach of these conditions of participation, the facilitator or other members of the group can then point to the agreed rules. This approach is also more likely to prevent the facilitator from becoming a target – because the rules were decided by the group, not imposed by the facilitator.

1. Lower the heat

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses:

Nonviolent Communication holds that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about their human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt, shame, etc. These ‘violent’ modes of communication, when used during a conflict, divert the attention of the participants away from clarifying their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, thus perpetuating the conflict.

In his Ministry of Food and Food Revolution TV series, Jamie Oliver encounters a number of these situations – it is worth studying how he worked to get groups hostile to each other, and to him, on the same page.

2. Ask participants to ‘play the ball’, not the player

Nothing raises someone’s hackles or puts them in a defensive position like feeling they are being personally attacked for an idea or point of view they are offering.

Ask people to proceed as participants in a conversation, rather than opponents in a debate. Remind them that everyone is there to deal with the common issue of concern, not to attack others.

If you are in the firing line, be prepared and know what you can do to help you survive personal attacks. Setting some ground rules at the beginning of the session about refraining from ad hominem tactics is preferable, rather than trying to manage them without the group’s agreement that this is not acceptable.

3. Reframe participants’ view of the issue from negative to positive

A discussion can quickly end up on the downward spiral if the focus is constantly on what is wrong, or what problem needs to be fixed, how it’s so-and-so’s fault, and that it’s such a mess it might never be resolved.

Yet if people are not given the opportunity to speak, or more importantly, to be heard, it is likely to fuel frustration and anger that derails the group. Demonstrating that you are listening by reiterating back to various speakers what has been said shows that you, and the rest of the group, have heard them. Active listening builds trust.

Using an ‘assets-based’ approach allows a group to focus on what is already working – focusing on positives and strengths, building on what communities already have – and how more of this can be achieved.

In situations where the engagement is expected to be ongoing, or the issues are very sensitive and/or complex, it may take up a whole session (or more) for people to air their concerns before moving onto the task at hand. It is likely that a lot of trust-building needs to take place, and that requires building personal relationships which takes time.

Watch out for ‘black hats’ and ensure they do not take over or scuttle proceedings.

4. Shift the focus to the present, and the common concern

While it is true that past events have shaped the current situation, allowing a conversation or group to keep going over the past can bog down the discussion and prevent a group from making headway about a common concern (which is why they’re there, right?).

Instead, mutualise concerns about the issue – get the group to think about what they have in common, rather than what makes them different.

blonde little girl with pigtails looks like blonde dog with floppy ears - different, but some things in common








Suggesting that the parties combine against the problem is a way to get a group thinking about what to do now, rather than engaging in blame games about the past.

It’s important to acknowledge that where there may not be common ground, it’s OK to agree to disagree. In addition, there may be several groups with a common purpose different from the other groups.

Be aware that there may be a number of agendas in the room, that each may need to be dealt with one at a time, and that this process could involve others through their provision of support and/or constructive criticism.

5. Shift the idea from a positional claim to an expression of need

People making claims and then defending positions are less likely to be open to differing viewpoints, and very likely to get others who don’t share their perspective offside.

Asking participants to instead express a need reframes the dynamic from ‘here’s what I want’ to ‘who can help me?’

Think about how you feel when you hear someone asking for help, rather than someone making demands. People are honoured to be asked for advice or assistance.

If you’re a participant in a session that’s gone off the rails, do what you can to help the facilitator get the discussion back on track. The risk of your ‘treading on their toes’ is probably far outweighed by their gratitude that someone else is backing up their efforts.

None of these steps are a foolproof panacea for facilitating groups, but they are some of the most effective tools for giving yourself the best chance of a positive outcome when things go awry.

Finally, accept that some days, despite your best efforts, the group is just going to ‘go bad’ and will be beyond rescue – and that’s just how it is.

Many thanks to my good friend Maria Fantasia, who has extensive experience in community and stakeholder engagement, for her input; and to Margaret Dugdale, whose Planning With Communities course I have attended, which informed this post.

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An Ethos of Conversation

image of George Bernard Shaw with his quote: 'The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place".

One of the greatest feelings of connection with others can come as a result of meaningful conversations with people who may be significant to you in any number of ways, or with someone you may never see again.

How often do you talk – really talk – not only to loved ones and close friends, but to people you don’t know, and people who might be not-like-you? How often have you had an experience like those of Dave Pollard in Conversations That Matter?

In retrospect, I would guess that most of the conversations I was party to over the years were incompetently conducted and largely a waste of time. The conversants, for the most part, had already decided what they believed or what needed to be done, and were just looking for reassurance. Or they were talking to hear themselves think, and not listening to anyone else. There was almost never any real exchange of information, or ideas, or perspectives, despite the earnest attempts of the conversants to convey these things.

How often to we get to engage in deep conversation, especially with those with whom we might differ, in the spirit of Koinonia?

I want to introduce you to the concept of Conversare, which is described by one of its key proponents and ‘professional conversationalist’, Dr Alan Stewart, as ‘a way of bringing people together to interact quite differently from how we do usually – by engaging in lively conversation, mainly with someone you may not know, in public places’.

‘Conversare’ is a different kind of conversation that might happen at a party, or at a business networking event (especially if there are other subtle agendas or politics going on there). It’s certainly different to interactions we might have had at school or work, where someone else is controlling the agenda or dominating the discussion, or where we are expected to keep quiet so others can talk at us.

In his article The Art of a Lively Conversation, Alain de Botton notes that perhaps part of the reason there has been a decline in the art and practice of conversation is that we assume conversational skills are inherent, not something worked on and developed:

…it is striking how bad most of us are at having a conversation, chiefly because we insist that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born with, rather than an art dependent on the acquisition of a range of odd and artificially acquired skills. We rightly accept that improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes, and as a result, the market is flooded with television programs and books promising to take us through the intricacies of assembling aubergine paté or poached pears. But we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation…

Botton goes on to discuss how the art of conversation was reinvigorated in the 18th century Parisian salons of the French aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, drawing on the traditions established in Ancient Greece:

Fed up with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles, where the talk centered relentlessly on who had shot what and in which forest, they wanted to make their homes into the spiritual descendants of Socrates’ dining room…

Guests had to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them with the same rigor as a scholar in a library, except that rather than consulting books, the other guests were to provide the insights. Examples of fitting topics included: What is the wisest way to approach one’s own death? Can governments make us good or only obedient?

There are distinct parallels here with the idle and mundane chatter of the court, and its 21st century incarnation of gossip, superficial social media exchanges, reality TV and celebrity news.

Conversation skills have also become limited by the notion that talking is only for conveying useful information and practical knowledge, or for argument and debate.

In his mini-book Time to converse at the heart of human warmth, Stewart cautions that ‘conversing’ should not be confused with ‘debating’:

While debate brings rigor to analysis, it is essentially confrontational. Talking of debate can be misleading and counterproductive – part of the problem – when there is a need to build ideas and to seek creative solutions interdependently. For by its very nature a debate is a contest, a game, with winners and losers defined by who is right and who is wrong. Inviting people to contribute to a debate is to set up adversarial positions which are attacked and defended. The alternative?  To converse, rather than debate.

Conversing involves talking without needing the answers you wanted, and interacting without anyone trying to control the direction or outcome of a conversation.

Conversing and debating are two very different approaches and mindsets, which create different dynamics and potential pathways for action:

Conversing Debating
finding common ground winning
searches for basic agreements, strengths in other positions searches for glaring differences, weaknesses in other positions
is collaborative – two or more sides work together toward a common understanding is confrontational – two sides oppose each other and try to prove each other wrong
assumes many people have pieces of the answer, and that together they can put them into a workable solution assumes that there is a right answer, and someone has it
listens to understand, find meaning listens to find flaws, counter argument
involves a concern for the other person and seeks not to alienate or offend involves a countering of other positions without focusing on feelings; often belittles or deprecates the other person
enlarges, possibly changes, participant’s point of view reaffirms participant’s own point of view
one submits one’s best thinking, knowing other people’s reflections will help improve rather than destroy it one submits one’s best thinking, and defends against challenge to show that it is right
opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions defend one’s own position as the best solution and excludes other solutions
calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs
reveals assumptions for re-evaluation defends assumptions as truth
introspection on one’s own position critique of others’ position
whatever is contributed is of potential value careful about saying anything that may be attacked, about being personally vilified
opportunity to speak from the heart draws mainly on intellectual, rational skills
creates an open-minded attitude – an openness to being wrong, and an openness to change creates a close-minded attitude – a determination to be right
implies a conversation remains open-ended implies a conclusion

Observe the discussions you see around you – in your personal life, at work, in the public arena – how often do you see conversation rather than debate? The latter is great for ratings and headlines, not so good for forging paths forward.

To initiate conversing, Stewart suggests questions like ‘What is interesting to you at the moment?’ and ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ He likens conversation to jazz, where it starts with conventional elements and then incorporates improvisation.

Outcomes of conversing may include:

  • new knowledge is generated, horizons are expanded
  • local knowledge is uncovered or expressed
  • relationships begin and are sustained
  • questions are unsuppressed, brought into the open for consideration
  • attitudes and feelings are transformed
  • participants feel excited and energised
  • people feel included, feelings of trust are nurtured

Debate certainly has its place, but if we are trying to find a way forward from a starting point of different perspectives, the dominance of debate undermines this process.

What if we put at least as much effort into becoming as good at conversation as we do debate? What if a greater percentage of our exchanges were conversing?

What would we be able to achieve if we could engage with others using an ethos of conversation rather than debate?

It is not difference which immobilises us most, but silence.

Audre Lorde

It is critical that we encourage and support the skills and practice of conversation, especially in times when we have huge challenges to address that are being stymied by inability to find a lack of common ground and a way to talk together.

You don’t need the permission of your workplace, university/college, family or friends to give ‘conversare’ a go and develop your skills – if you want to try the idea out, why not organise an event (or look for one) on Meetup?

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