I’ve sometimes talked about Bruce Schneier’s idea of “security theatre”. He uses this to describe security processes at airports that (in his view) create an illusion of security to reassure the public, but are actually pretty ineffective. I’ve extended that to talk about “action theatre”, by which I mean stuff we do in meetings like action planning that may appear to be to do with action but is sometimes really a way of avoiding difficult stuff and doesn’t actually lead to change. More here ( and see also commitment ceremonies).
So that’s theatre as in: not real just simulated.
But what about the kind of theatre that is real, in the sense that it goes beyond mere words and show to resonate with us emotionally, to register as true beyond mere logic or analysis?
In this sense, then everything that happens in organisations is theatre, though of varying dramatic impact.
When I’m working with people on difficult conversations, this seems important. Typically, when someone in a group shares a difficult conversation, the tendency is go for analysis. There are learned discussions about learning styles, or references to anyone of a number of pigeonholing systems like Meyers Briggs. Or to a variety of therapeutic models.
All of which is quite seductive but actually becomes quite time consuming. And while all this theory is being explained, I’m not sure that much changes. Perhaps the client gains some new insight, but I suspect that it remains theoretical.
And that’s because difficult conversations are a performance. There are things at stake. Feelings run high. And all the clever analysis can easily become a way of avoiding those feelings. As if we believe: if we strategise this enough, we can avoid all those awkward feelings. If I just work out what’s happening, I can control this situation.
I’m more inclined to think that instead of avoiding the drama inherent in difficult conversations, we might we want to accept it. And bring more of an actor’s mindset to them. Now actors like to think about motivation but they also do a lot of rehearsal. And that’s what I encourage people to do with difficult conversations. Play out a few lines of the scene and see how if feels to change what you say or do in any one of a number of ways.
Sometimes your understanding of the situation gains more from trying stuff out and doing things with your body, than engaging in analysis. Generally, it helps to try out some goofy things you wouldn’t normally do, to open up more possibility.
A lot of the time, people are surprised that very simple shifts can change how the conversation feels. Shorter sentences. Little changes of posture or pace. And doing less work and leaving more space to the other person. But you don’t get learning from a theory, you get it by trying, flailing around a little, and then making discoveries.
We put down our clever for a while, and use a bit more of the intelligence and creativity that comes out when we try stuff out, not just talk about it.