The Action Domain of David Kantor’s Four Player model provides an additional layer of guidance to discern alignment between a conversation’s stages (the “how”) and content (the “what”). We can learn to recognize signs and signals when such alignment is lacking and possible ways to move it back to a more productive state.
Kantor’s Four Player Model
David Kantor and his colleagues have spent decades answering the question: might there an underlying universal pattern to human verbal communication? It’s a powerful question, and one that initially seems absurd (at least it did to me). How could all of the diversity and complexity of spoken words be boiled down into a simple model, and still be even remotely valuable? As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of evidence that such a pattern does exist, a sort of conversational meta-context that, from Kantor’s research, holds up across different languages and cultures.
Four Player is more abstract than those presented in the first two parts; if you’re curious about your preferred learning style, stop reading right now and reflect on your response to another model being presented. On one hand, you may have a sense of anticipation; mental models are valued by assimilating and converging styles of learning. On the other, you may be feeling a sense of impatience or that “these models are just a waste of time; let’s get to something real!” Concrete experiences are valued by accommodating and diverging styles. The strength of the style; the learner’s ability to flex to other styles, will in large part drive the reaction to the situation, in this case another model.
The Four Player Model itself is deceivingly simple, containing four aspects: Rule of Order, Communication Domain, life stories or narratives of identity, and Actions Domain. David Kantor has written an exceptional book explaining the model; (Kantor, 2012) this article series will focus only on the Actions Domain, exploring how it interacts with stages of a conversation and learning styles, covered in Parts I and II.
Rather than interacting directly with each other, people participating in a conversation are instead interacting directly with the conversation-as-system.
We tend to think as a verbal conversation as an exchange between two or more people. Four Player asserts that in addition to the people, the interaction between them is also a discrete entity; a type of system between them. Rather than interacting directly with each other, people participating in a conversation are instead interacting directly with the conversation-as-system. Viewing a conversation as a discrete system can be difficult to comprehend at first. However, if we apply thinking from other contexts, it begins to make more sense. Our ability to make sense of this core concept enables access to deeper understanding.
W. Edwards Deming demonstrated time and again that human behavior is driven mostly by organizational and production systems. (Deming, 1982) Thus, how human beings behave together in conversations is driven largely by the conversational system. According to Deming, improving organizational performance is achieved by improving the systems responsible for driving human behavior. Extending this core idea, improving the quality and effectiveness of our conversations is achieved by growing our understanding of the systems occupying space between us.
Conversations are systems that we interact with; we connect to them through roles, which we fill according to our preferences and capacities. When conversational roles are filled with clarity of outcome and alignment of influence, learning style, and conversational stage, the interaction is productive. When any of these dynamics are out of alignment with each other, dysfunction arises instead.
Just as seeing a conversation as a system enables us to improve its effectiveness in novel ways, decoupling individuals from the roles they fill creates incredible possibility. Changing people is profoundly difficult work, though changing roles, or at least agreeing on collective benefit from such a change, is remarkably easy.
Just as seeing a conversation as a system enables us to improve its effectiveness in novel ways, decoupling individuals from the roles they fill creates incredible possibility.
We fill roles according to either our default preferences, or the capacities we have developed to flex into other roles. We can hear this in the language that we use to make sense of our, and others’, behavior:
- “He always has to be the one to speak up first!”
- “She never says anything, just goes along with what others suggest!”
- “If I don’t challenge ideas, no one else will and we’ll end up with a bad decision!”
As a result of all this, despite our best intent we often fill a role as a reaction, rather than as a conscious choice. Just as we can become rigid with our learning styles, we can also be very rigid with the kinds of roles we know how, or are willing, to fill in conversations. Rigidity can lead to dysfunctional patterns of interaction that seem intractable and lead to unproductive conflict.
However, we can learn to recognize these roles and build our abilities to fill them by choice, rather than simply reacting. The Actions Domain gives us language to do just this.
The Actions Domain deals with observable verbal communication; namely language and how it is used within a conversation. The model presents four discrete types of actions: move, oppose, follow, and bystand.
- Move is an attempt to initiate action. It sets the direction of the conversation; “shall we begin the meeting?” or “my suggestion is to do [fill in the blank].”
- Oppose may come across as a block to a move. It brings correction to the conversation; “we can’t start without everyone present.” or “that’s not what the data says.”
- Follow goes along with a move. It continues or completes the direction set by the move it is following; “I’m OK to start without everyone here, yet.” or “I agree with your assessment of the data.”
- Bystand seeks to broaden the perspective and provide a new angle. It brings unbiased information into the conversation, as someone standing back a bit sharing her perspective would be able to do; “yes, it is 9 o’clock, which we agreed as the start time. We also agreed to begin whether or not everyone is present, though we’ve also found that when we do, we have to backtrack and repeat what we’ve already discussed.” or “depending on how we look at the data, both suggestions have merit.”
When these actions are effectively carried out and in healthy relationship with each other, conversations are productive and there’s enough tension in the various actions to achieve desired outcomes.
While we have preferences for these actions and the roles they represent, we will often blend them in statements that chain together several actions, which can muddle our intent. For example, an oppose or bystand might be immediately followed with another move:
- “we can’t start without everyone present [oppose], let’s wait another 5 minutes for the others to arrive [move].”
- “depending on how we look at the data, both suggestions have merit [bystand], let’s start with the first suggestion and see if we can find some agreement there [move].”
When these actions are effectively carried out and in healthy relationship with each other, conversations are productive and there’s enough tension in the various actions to achieve desired outcomes. Moves are sufficiently opposed to refine ideas; both are followed to give the conversational center to those developing the ideas with highest value, and bystands keep track of process and reflect back to the group its own behavior.
If we once again bring forth the shape of a conversation, we can begin to layer how these different actions might look in the different stages. For example, an effective move in the divergent stage might be “since we’re just beginning this conversation [bystand], perhaps we can start by generating ideas through silent brainstorming [move]?” This same move, to generate more ideas, will be much less effective if the conversation has moved along to converging. While this may make logical sense, reality tends to be a lot messier.
Learning to communicate effectively in groups takes practice, feedback, and initially be time-intensive and at times quite uncomfortable. What we intend to convey and what others hear and interpret has a nasty tendency to be very, very different, particularly as stress and pressure increase. The children’s game of Telephone illustrates this beautifully with even a basic idea such as a simple sentence. Scale that up to something like building a software platform with millions of dollars of cost and revenue at stake, and we’ve got a minefield of miscommunication.
We can learn to become aware of the actions we, and the people we interact with, prefer. We can begin to flex into other actions as well, such as Simon Sinek’s excellent suggestion that leaders speak last; (Sinek, 2017) learning to initially follow rather than move.
The Four Player Model’s Action Domain can be introduced experientially with the same format as Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, discussed in Part II. Briefly:
- Tape out a 2×2 matrix on an open area of floor large enough to comfortable accommodate the entire group.
- Place each of the actions, written on an 8.5×11 or A4 sheet of paper, in each quadrant. As you place them, explain the action and give a couple examples.
- Ask for any clarifying questions.
- Invite the group to silently walk the map, spending time in each quadrant reflecting on their preference for that particular action.
- Invite the group to find the place on the map that feels most comfortable; ask if anyone would be willing to share where s/he is standing and why.
- Invite the group to reflect on the implications of their configuration; are there action quadrants that are full? Empty? What are the ratios; perhaps only a single oppose and many moves; how does this dynamic play out in the group?
- Invite the group to reflect on how their configuration supports their success; how might it be challenging them? What might they want to experiment with to seek improvement?
While we initially have much to gain by simply understanding each action, their power to help us understand group dynamics is truly unlocked when we begin to see how they interact, and where we tend to be effective or get stuck. For example, the classic stuck pattern of move->oppose->move->oppose without any resolution. Or the opposite extreme of lack of moves or opposition move->follow->follow->move: “what shall we do?” “I don’t know, I’m OK with whatever the group decides” “me, too” “OK, but what shall we do?”
The Four Player Model’s Action Domain further reveals previously invisible dynamics that play out when human beings interact together. These dynamics are at play regardless of our awareness; learning to recognize them enables us to begin shaping them toward better outcomes.
We each carry our own preferences for particular actions. A traditional “strong leader” for example makes extensive moves while someone who likes to play “devil’s advocate” makes extensive opposes and even bystands.
A huge thanks to William Strydom for his suggestions in refining this post!
Part IV will explore how the ideas presented so far reinforce each other, unlocking powerful insight into unleashing collective performance by informing our design of conversations.
Sources, References, and Contributions
Deming, W. E. (1982). Out Of The Crisis. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Educational Services.
Issacs, W. (1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Doubleday.
Kantor, D. (2012). Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sinek, S. (2017, Junly 3). Simon Sinek Be the Last to Speak. Retrieved from YouTube: Simon Sinek Be the Last to Speak