Four years ago I read and reviewed Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, in which he explains how pervasive dominance and submission behaviours are in human interactions. He describes an example of physical dominance and submission (status displays) in our encounters with strangers:
Imagine that two strangers are approaching each other along an empty street. It’s straight, hundreds of yards long and with wide pavements. Both strangers are walking at an even pace, and at some point one of them will have to move aside in order to pass. You can see this decision being made 100 yards or more before it has to. In my view the two people scan each other for signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think they’re equal, both move aside. If they both think they’re dominant (or if one isn’t paying attention) they end up doing the sideways dance and muttering apologies. But this doesn’t happen if you meet a frail or half-blind person: You move aside for them. It’s only when you think the other person is challenging that the dance occurs. I remember doing it once with a man in a shop doorway who took me by the forearms and gently moved me out of the way — it still rankles. Old people tend to cling to the highest status they have had, and will deliberately ‘not notice’ others while clinging fiercely to the (often walled) inside of the walkway. A bustling crowd is constantly and unconsciously exchanging status signals and challenges, with the more submissive person stepping aside.
Shortly thereafter I read and reviewed Peter Collett’s The Book of Tells that teaches you to read status displays in body language, and specifically these six displays:
The picture above (selected randomly off the net), for example, includes several dominant displays (sitting very straight, turning away, arms raised or extended, sitting slouched back with legs extended, sitting at end of table) and several submissive displays (slouching forward attentively, sitting in middle of long side of table, sitting with legs drawn up beneath chair).
Collett includes, in addition to body, hand, eye and face signals, some examples of spoken signals of dominance and submission:
In my review of Impro, I lamented: “What disturbs me most is what this bodes for us idealists trying to establish non-hierarchical, leaderless political and economic structures — communities of peers. Are such structures unnatural? Or do we simply need to learn to recognize the pecking order for what it is — a primeval tool for minimizing conflict and deciding who will do the breeding — and what it isn’t — a license to take an unfair share of wealth and power?”
Since then I have been speaking about the importance of Love, Conversation and Community, and specifically the integration of the three: Facilitating non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer conversations among people in community (i.e. with shared passions, shared objectives, or shared problems) who care about each other and their community. Today I asked myself:
Are these status displays, and our apparent unconscious need to make them, interfering with communication, and undermining the achievement of consensus, collaboration and non-hierarchical problem-solving?
Since our bodies are always ‘saying’ much more than our words, even if we monitor and try to extinguish (as facilitators) more obvious dominance behaviours (bullying) and submissive behaviours (wallflowers), there is almost nothing we can do to reduce non-verbal signals. Yes, we can create circles and get rid of tables, but you will still see a ton of such displays, in posture, eye, face, hand signals and tone of voice.
The courses I have taken in facilitation don’t teach you to recognize or try to alleviate such behaviours, perhaps because it would be an impossible task. I know I am prone to slouch back, legs extended, hands on head with elbows out like antlers, a multiple dominance display. It must be very confusing to others when I try consciously to speak in an inviting, questioning, open-minded way while making such an aggressive non-verbal display!
Likewise I have witnessed people speak passionately and articulately about something, but leave the audience unimpressed because their body language betrays a lack of self-confidence in what they’re saying. In particular I have watched a woman speak in a soft voice (raising her voice slightly at the end of each phrase) and be completely ignored and discounted, while a man a few minutes later, speaking in a soft, measured voice, said the same thing and was hailed as brilliant, everyone scribbling down what he said word for word.
So what do you think: Are there things we can do, both as facilitators and as conversationalists, to suppress power displays and displays of submission, so that listeners focus on what is being said, not how it is said or by whom?
Last Saturday I mentioned an article by Andrew Campbell that retrieves and elaborates on a fascinating model by Vincent Kenny on ‘Dead Language’ vs ‘Live Language’ and how power politics in conversation ‘deadens’ the language and dialogue and saps its power, creativity and usefulness. Language in conversation, the article explains, is sometimes wielded as a weapon, to stop thought and creativity and sharing and connection and everything else it is valuable for.
This is a second, more explicit ‘abuse of power’ in conversation. You know how it works: There are amazingly effective conversation-killers that those uncomfortable with change can use to stomp it out in a way that is almost impossible to defend against. “We tried that last year and it was a disaster.” “If we allowed people to do that, we’d have chaos on our hands, costs would soar and productivity would fall.” “We’d need to get the authority to do that from x and for reason y that would be almost impossible to get.” Andrew’s article provides more examples.
This raises a second question: Are there things we can do, both as facilitators and as listeners, to challenge and reject ‘dead language’ that stifles energy, innovation, courage and other collective qualities of a group necessary to bring about change?
I am very good at imagining possibilities (and throwing them out for consideration) and for gently (and not so gently) provoking people to want to change (themselves), prodding them to intend to act. I think these capacities are helpful in conversations in community. Maybe I’m meant to do these things in conversations, rather than being a ‘neutral’ facilitator. But since my imagined possibilities and provocations often produce these hostile dominance displays and ‘dead language’ responses, if I really want my ideas to get traction, I think I need to learn how to deal with thesebehaviours. What’s your experience?
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
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What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
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Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
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What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
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Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
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The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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