Expanding Communications Through Psychodrama

Posted: 10/01/2018 0 Comment Related items :

Expanding Communications Through Psychodrama
Adam Blatner, M.D. TEP
(This is in part a supplement to a plenary presentation to the 66th Annual Conference of the American Society for Group Psychotherapy & Psychodrama (ASGPP), April 11, 2008, San Antonio, Texas) Posted April 4, 2008

The many dimensions of communication can be expanded and deepened by using the various tools associated with psychodrama. This paper will present over thirty ways this may be accomplished.

Communications began with gestures and grunts, expanded into language, and then systems of codes, drum sounds, horn blasts. Story-telling and prayers began to expand the use of language, introducing dimensions of past and future, myth and imagination. Drama was an extension of story-telling.

I use the term “dimension” to refer to a whole compartment of mind that had not been opened before, a frame or viewpoint that allows for new possibilities, categories of thought and action, fresh perspectives, creative metaphors. Each of the types of expansion of communication opens another dimension in the mind.

Writing, then, added a further dimension—and again, each application of writing allowed for new sub-dimensions: Accounting, taxes, political propaganda (extolling the great deeds of the king or pharaoh), legends, incantations. That writing about events could be reviewed and assessed as to its historical accuracy was an idea that didn’t really catch on until only a few hundred years before the common era!

Many other extensions of communication followed, each one allowing for an expansion in different ways—cost and accessibility, readability, transport-ability, speed of transmission, and so forth. Writing was followed by printing, postal systems, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and now we have the computer.

The computer was not a means of communication at first. It was simply a high-powered calculator. It took someone’s re-visioning in the 1950s to realize that electronics allowed for calculations to happen a thousand times faster (and now it’s a billion times faster), and at this rate, numbers could be used to stand for words and even pictures. That allowed computers to engage not just in fast calculations, but rather, “information processing.” It allowed for applications to go beyond mathematics or accounting and reach into art and literature, science and ordinary day-to-day communications.

Computers have added possibilities of interactivity that are more multi-dimensional than letters or television, and so we have the growth of a new dimension of life—“social media,” in which people interact using YouTube, FaceBook, MySpace, Second Life, virtual worlds, interactive dramas, and so forth.

With these considerations in mind, let us review the kinds of possibilities that Moreno’s tools—role theory, psychodrama, sociometry, action techniques, sociodrama, improvisational drama, interactive group process and the like—have to offer:

1. Creativity: Making this a prime goal, rather than mere adjustment, or determining who is “right” (and the others therefore “wrong”), seeking the “right answer, arguing, debating. These latter approaches have become pervasive in communications, but when the goal shifts to the ideal of finding an alternative, creative solution, it calls up associated ideas about invention, exploration, discovery, cooperative endeavor, win-win, and the like. In spite of being somewhat fashionable lately, many aspects of our culture still reward mindless obedience, uncritical acceptance, complacency, and distraction. Creativity is given more lip service than actual support. So taking this ideal seriously is actually subversive, in that it undermines the sense that authority and power is deserved and unchanging. Creativity opens up the dimension of possibility.

2. Spontaneity was recognized by Moreno to be a major approach to promoting creativity, and this was one of his best insights. It’s not a matter of just pondering and having eureka moments —what is implied instead is a willingness to start experimenting, trying things out, making mistakes, using the feedback from recognizing that they are mistakes to try again, adjust the approach, maybe try something differently. Actual action, doing things, exploring scenarios, doing simulations, this is a major way to get creative breakthroughs.

3. Exploring: Another part of spontaneity is that when people get engaged in explorations, their minds become more receptive to the imagery and intuitions arising from the creative subconscious mind, the most powerful natural sources of creative ideas. This attitude that expects and opens to such non-rational inputs is another major source of effective creativity. These are thus other dimensions of creativity, opening to the higher realms the ancients attributed to the Muses.

4. Warming-Up: This is a third dimension, a recognition of associated elements that promote spontaneity. One is time, the need to gradually build up the mind’s process of receptivity. Another comes through the body-mind interaction of doing—in contrast to just thinking about it. Doing and imagining gradually raises the psychic temperature to a point of heightened mental receptivity. Just as in sports or music, all kinds of creative endeavors are enhanced by a gradual building up of interest, interactivity, feedback, involvement—the whole mind-body-spirit system becomes increasingly engaged.

5. Play: There is a shift of dimensionality from doing something seriously, as if each action had to count as a final product, to doing it in a tentative, provisional fashion. Rehearsal in music or drama involves not only practice, but also some room to make mistakes, be corrected, try again. More important is an attitude of feeling somewhat safe, and play is the natural context that liberates spontaneity. Communications are lightened by a bit of play—that’s why it’s called “levity.”

Play should not be devalued as mere frivolity or silliness. It can include those qualities, but kids and grown ups can also be fairly serious at their play—which isn’t the same as taking themselves too seriously. Indeed, Moreno considered this variable so important that he wanted it as the key theme on his gravestone: “Here lies the man who brought laughter and play back into psychotherapy.”

6. Drama as Laboratory. Drama is a natural complex of tools for promoting creative explorations. To a large degree, drama has been applied in the service of entertainment, and occasionally as a semi-religious pageant. But drama can also be used as a kind of simulation, the way astronauts use flight simulators, or politicians rehearse for a debate. Drama need not be scripted, rehearsed, and presented by professionals for the enjoyment of a passive audience; it can be improvised and interactive and used to explore psycho-social issues.

The concept of laboratory, similarly, has become associated with hard science, physics and chemistry, and with test tubes, beakers, chemicals bubbling in their flasks. But there can also be a way to explore, invent, and discover in the psychological and social realm, and then the instruments are those of communications. We all explored in these realms naturally when we were kids—then it was called make believe or pretend play—but it was our own kind of laboratory for psychological and social experiments. In a more refined way, make-believe play becomes drama, and in that form, offers a rich variety of such tools. Bringing these tools for exploration together generates the aforementioned psycho-social laboratory, and this kind of drama should be recognized then as yet another dimension of communication.

7. The Group: In exploring social and psychological situations, there are many advantages that arise from working in groups of people who are sharing in the quest. (Irvin Yalom notes a number of “therapeutic factors” in his now-classic textbook of Group Psychotherapy.) Note that all groups, like all forms of drama, may not be that useful. It’s not a matter of a mere gathering of people, such as when we attended a class at school and sat in roles while someone lectured. Rather, the people operate in a more egalitarian, interactive fashion, as a team.

8. The Techniques: The aforementioned elements are enhanced further by the various devices and techniques derived from drama and psychotherapy—the double, asides, replay, the mirror, role reversal, the director, auxiliary ego, protagonist, scores of warm-up techniques, and so forth. These are the psycho-social equivalents of the chemicals and instruments in a hard-science laboratory. Dramatic techniques further deepen and extend the explorations.

So we have a coming together of creativity, spontaneity, play, the stage, the group, and various other elements and techniques. It was a dynamic combination that can then be adapted for many settings, and used briefly or in long sessions; used alone or in combination with sociometry, role analysis, other drama forms, and so forth.

9. Interpretation. (On another webpage is a small essay about interpretation.) Morenian tools can be useful in our exploring the biases, social attitudes, underlying assumptions given to a problem. I imagine an educational system in which students are empowered to dare to imagine their own ideas, their own interpretations. This would be in contrast to the past in which most people just learned what they were fed and teachers rarely asked “what do you think about that” and meant it. (Asking a similar question to see if students have read the material and can demonstrate some knowledge is not the same as really helping students to warm up to their own spontaneity.) Engaging this potentiality of mind should be recognized as another way these approaches expand communications, open up yet another dimension.

10. Inspiration: Although I mentioned this in the section above on spontaneity, it is worth having its own occasion to pause and reflect. Making the process of psycho-social exploration less a matter of acquiring information, right answers, and more an opportunity for creativity creates a frame that invites in the dimension or category of expecting breakthrough thinking. Daring to think “outside the box” and other phrases associated with creativity also apply here. That drama is one of the arts reinforces the new perception that life can be a work of art, of creativity, and that counters the alternative model of our being “on trial” regarding our performance. True life achievement transcends having to get a good grade within the time-span of an academic class.

11. Working Without a Plan. So much in traditional education demanded a process of planning ahead of time. This is a good skill, but it’s also wise to recognize that some activities may be enjoyed without having to prepare a plan beforehand. Activities that allow for impromptu explorations facilitate such procedures. This als makes “operational” the idea of creativity.

12. Non-Competitive Explorations. In the spirit of comparing communications, some types are clearly competitive, and many types have a more disguised sub-theme of one-upsmanship, jostling for status and dominance. This reflects a more masculine type of game, and in light of the advances of feminism, it’s also worth noting that there are many activities that need not be played competitively. This includes “new games” and other cooperative endeavors. This is worth noting because many people have not experienced groups that are truly free of a sense of competitiveness, of winning or losing. Many have not learned that non-competitive games even exist! So an inclusive, mutually supportive group norm represents for many a new dimension in communications and social involvement.

13. Fun. Again, many have been raised in school systems or been in therapy where the unspoken norm is “no pain, no gain.” The idea that groups and group leaders can construct learning and discovery processes that are mainly fun leads to a recognition that people do even better with a feeling of intrinsic motivation in learning the skills involved in the task. There may be some times when the challenge seems somewhat threatening, but part of the art is to cushion these moments so they don’t become overwhelming.

Developments in neuroscience have shown that beyond a certain mild level, anxiety shuts down the inflow of ideas from the higher brain cortex. That means that creativity doesn’t much happen when people feel scared or shamed. What’s needed, then, are ways to help people feel the opposite—safe and optimistic, open, expansive. The art of making the group process supportive, lighthearted, and fun supports this.

14. Serious Depth: In contrast to staying at the level of superficiality and facade, explorations of real issues in life are done with serious intent. Yes, they may be lightened by occasional moments of playfulness—the challenge, as I noted, is not to take things so seriously that one gets locked into having to defend a position—but the exploration is treated with respect if not solemnity. In this sense, by serious I’m referring to issues in life that are felt to be meaningful, and addressing them in a group leads to a different kind of intimacy, encounter, and social bond. To consider significant issues together, issues dealing with social norms, personal attitudes, religious beliefs, or shared work challenges, should be recognized as involving a dimension that is different from ordinary small talk.

15. Empowerment for Co-Creativity. For many, some meetings or classes may be relatively irrelevant to their actual concerns. The context is such that it feels inappropriate to speak up and ask about issues that are more relevant. The kinds of explorations being addressed here, though, draw on a more interactive model. The dissatisfaction of one person may shed light on a group process that is becoming too intellectualized or drifting off the more emotionally pointed issues. The group norm of encouraging all participants to imagine that they are co-directors and co-creators shifts the tone from passive to active, and supports the norm of speaking up.

16. Role Relief. The idea that we can ask for radical changes in set is another dimension, that of changing dimensions, just like changing channels. People who are in roles in which they are helpful, or seem to be playing devil’s advocate, the pedantic critic or the make-everyone-feel-nice roles—these and other roles can become tiring not only for others, but for the person playing these roles. The idea that you can shift, ask for a scene change, announce a role change, can be very relieving. It’s also healthy to expand and stretch one’s role repertoire.

Another kind of role relief happens when I volunteer to take “auxilary ego” roles for others’ enactments. I might play another person in the protagonist’s situation, or a double for the antagonist or protagonist, and so forth. I feel that I have participated, and thereby become more of a part of things. I can be appreciated for my empathizing or for playing a role with the appropriate or surprising degree of drama. This can be a relief from the role of having to speak up and say something as a group member, because sometimes I don’t have much to say.

Many in the helping professions tire of their helping role. I confess that it is fun and relieving for me to shift into playing problematic roles, the villain, or a role that reflects the opposite of my own on some issue. Sometimes I enjoy being somewhat contrary, independent-thinking, exploratory or mischievous. (Remember what I said about the dimension of play, of shifting gears and lightening up for a while, and then shifting gears and re-warming up seriously. If you take yourself too seriously, you can’t shift gears that way.) However, I find it important to announce this: I don’t really feel this way but I’d like to try out the role of (and name the role). This helps others not feel disoriented by my change in character. Telling people “where you’re coming from”—i.e., what role you’re choosing to take—is an ethical principle.

17. Performance. (See my webpages on this.)Noticing that I’m behaving in a certain way, and noticing that people notice, this dimension of self-reflection can then be made explicit. We can talk about how that performance was received: was it effective, overdone, too subtle, misleading?

18. Sharing: After enactments, I may find I can share a bit about my own life—I don’t have to feel impelled to come up with some clever “insight” or “interpretation” or opinion. There’s a dimension of personal involvement here.

19. Surplus Reality: This is the term Moreno gave to one of the most important dimensions of communications that is generated through drama, psychodrama, or sociodrama. The following items are different types of examples.

a. Roles of Those Not Present. Often discussions involve viewpoints that might be held by people who are not present. It can be useful to shift away from talking “about” them—and especially problematic is the tendency to attribute motivation or assume “we” know what “they” want. Some people might take their role and try to imagine what it’s like to be in that position, to articulate it as authentically as possible—no caricaturizing. The challenge is to develop a self-system that would be consistent with a position that the majority of the group might not agree with.

Examples of other roles of those not present might include the father who has died; the baby who hasn’t yet been born; the child who never got a chance to be born or live; Jesus or some other religious figure from the past. Some of these roles live in our minds—they are psychologically present even if they are not and even could not be present.

b. Another example: Doing a sociodrama about, abortion, a group might assign various roles to different group members. (Generally it’s best if the people volunteer to play this or that role.) For a sociodrama about the issues relating to abortion, some roles that might need to be given voice might include the embryo, who is imagined to be able to speak out; the mother who wants the abortion and her reasons; the same mother and the part of her who doesn’t want the abortion and her reasons; the lawyers for the government; the local right-to-life preacher; and many others.

c. The idea of doing a “goodbye scene” with a parent who has died or some other lost person, dream, part of the body, and so forth requires a warming up of the auxiliary who would play that crucial role, and is discussed on a paper on grief work on this website. : (near the end of the paper).

20. Time Dimensions:

a. The Past: Memories are key opportunities for understanding the formation of an attitude and or re-doing a stressful or traumatic scene.

b. The Here-and-Now: A scene about life in the near-present—near past and anticipated near future—may help clarify the client’s (or protagonist’s) situation.

c. Future Projection: People sometimes repress the future as much as they repress certain painful memories or thoughts. Thinking about the future is fraught with anxiety. Using the elements of play, rehearsal, and the spirit of exploration, people in personal development or therapy groups can build up the courage to envision more concretely—that is, become more specific about one’s aspirations. The tendency is to cop out, to say “I don’t know.” Constructing the scene begins to make one’s intentions more realistic and to neutralize anxiety.

Rehearsing for the future involves several components. If you don’t know what it is you want—it’s still unclear, then making it into a scene we all can see draws it into a more clear condition in your mind. If you do know the goal fairly clearly, you can explore what it might take to get there, and rehearse some of the steps—the job interview, the first demands of the role, and so forth. This again expands the dimensional depth of the communications process.

The dimensions of past and future are thus brought in. Instead of just talking about events—which adds a feeling of distance, and also allows the defenses of intellectualizing and isolation of affect—you re-experience events. For the past, you can re-do them, playing a scene to a different conclusion. These experiences are profoundly reparative.

21. Relationship Maintenance. As a group explores a problem, it addresses not only the dimension of task analysis, but equally importantly, concern about the feelings of the people in the group and that they are feeling comfortable or optimally connected to the others. Frictions arise naturally and inevitably in the course of the group’s life, and there is a need to encourage and support each other as some dip into feeling more vulnerable, criticized, or otherwise in need of help. Psychodramatic techniques can be used to help people say what needs to be heard—affirmations of positive attitudes; reassurance, and showing that we care about our relationships among ourselves.

22. Psychological-Mindedness. We are living in an era in which thinking about feelings, attitudes, and the way we treat each other has become more mainstream. While many—perhaps most—people still lack this sensitivity, the number who do care about looking at the way we think is rising. Many of the Moreno’s techniques build these attitudes and skills, and then build upon them still new skills and attitudes. What emerges is a social norm in which it is expected that participants will learn to examine their own thinking and behavior patterns, reassess assumptions, and seek clarity.

23. Nonverbal Communications: Drama heightens our awareness not only of what is said, but also how it is said, the tone of voice, gesture, and many other variables (see webpage about nonverbal communicatios). This dimension is absent in many media, and variably more obvious in others. It’s most apparent when people are actually in the same room together, but straight discussion tends to focus on content and generally ignores the way things are expressed. Using action techniques, nonverbal aspects of communication may be subject to examination. A movement may be replayed, exaggerated a bit, and perhaps reexamined from the side, using the “mirror technique.” In that case, the one who behaved in a certain way stands to the side and observes while someone else plays that same behavior. Then the protagonist can re-enter the scene and try making that statement or asking that question again, but with some change in how it was expressed.
a. Nonverbal behavior can also be examined from the viewpoint of how a given behavior makes the person who is expressing that behavior feel. It helps to heighten awareness of the way nonverbal behavior also acts as an internal cue-er and reinforcer of attitudes!.

24. Environmental Analysis: This is also a nonverbal dimension, and though less obvious, it merits being examined. The environment includes the subtle influences and biases imposed by the architecture of the room, the time allocated to the group session or meeting, the ratio of people in different sub-groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, professional background), etc. Participants may notice and comment on factors such as the subtle peer pressures by majorities (or perceived majorities). In short, the spirit of group work invites participants to attend to the ways we communicate, our nonverbal communications, and to make them explicit.

25. Role Reversal: This technique may be used to help set up a scene, as the auxiliary, the other people playing a role in an enactment, gets some coaching from the protagonist about how her character should behave. What becomes more significant, though, is when in the course of the enactment the protagonist is invited to change parts with an antagonist and, in short, to empathize. The invitation to go beyond egocentricity represents one of the most important expansions of communications yet mentioned.
a. A variation I like to support when it is possible is for people to role reverse with each other, but in that reversed position, to accept correction from the person whose role they are playing. This fosters greater accuracy, and the person accepting the correction also thereby helps to break down the distrust barrier. (See paper on conflict resolution.)

26. Multiple Parts of Self. Instead of trying to present a single face to the group, people are encouraged to acknowledge their many inner roles and the reality that inner conflict, ambivalence, is common. Expressing this through enacting a conversation between different parts of oneself actually makes you seem more authentic to others. If we’re in a group togehter and I can see you admitting that you don’t just have one position, but are struggling to clarify your ideas, or are a bit torn between two desires, it makes me feel as if there’s more room for us to explore together. Similarly, when I can disclose my own mixed feelings, I feel more honest than when I feel I need to “be decisive,” “be consistent,” or in other ways choose one part and suppress its alternatives.

27. Shifting Frames of Reference: Conversations sometimes can become more creative when alternative frames of reference may be introduced. In doing sociodrama, though, it is important to make explicit your shifting your approach, your role, or the imagined context. Otherwise others in the enactment feel confused or “jerked around.” You might say something like “Now let’s approach this from a different viewpoint.” Also, talking in terms of “scenes” or talking about situations as scenarios also helps.

28. Concretization. This technique involves giving examples, and sometimes more than words: Feelings can be expressed in terms of actual postures. Feeling burdened may be represented by having an auxiliary lean on the protagonist’s back; feeling torn may be represented by two auxiliaries pulling on opposite arms. Enactment rather than talking about things should be viewed as a tool to move from abstract to concrete, to give examples. So often in discussions words get too general and people don’t really know what they mean. Worse, people think they know what you mean when in fact you mean something other than what they’re hearing.

29. Semantics: Although not really drama as such, it helps to not assume that you know what someone means when they use an abstract or general word. Often it is different than what other people think of, so it helps to give examples, not in terms of other abstract terms, but in a way that others can picture the scene fairly vividly. As a corollary, you can pause in a discussion or exploration and double check what people mean, explore the semantics. You don’t look for definitions so much as examples, especially if there is any sense of emotional loading to the use of a word. This also shows how an exploratory group may expand the communications in a more reflective fashion.

30. Fostering Expression of Thoughts and Feelings: If someone in the group feels shy or inarticulate, that person can ask for help or accept an offer of help. In sociodrama-like groups, this maneuver is okay. The “double” technique generates a mixture of supportive friend and helper in self-expression. This adds yet another dimension to communications.

31. Speaking From a Role: In the service of exploring a situation, a person in a group may speak not from her personal belief but from a role—one of the social roles that might be relevant to the situation. This fits with item number 18a, the point being that anyone—not just the director—may spontaneously bring this idea up. The viewpoint that needs to be articulated might be part the role system of a group with which you are affiliated, or the role of what you fantasize your opponent or a third party might want to say. In other words, you may take on an archetypal, sociodramatic, or axiodramatic role. The point is to help get everything that is merely implied or wondered about spoken clearly.

32. “Role” as Linguistic Unit: Trying to discuss things at the level of generalities may become confusing or generate an impasse. Related to item 28 above, re-framing a situation in terms of the roles being played can help clarify the problem. Talking about situations in terms of role components, role definitions, and the like constitutes a relatively user-friendly language for psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics, and other fields within the humanities. See other paper on this website on Role Dynamics

a. Roles can be analyzed, broken down into components, and those can be further analyzed or considered in terms of their sub-components. These may be evaluated in terms of expectations, associated attitudes, common ways of behaving or reacting, and so forth. What is sometimes discovered is that there may be agreements in many respects but the disagreement lies in certain other elements—and this is the kind of clarification that role analysis can provide.

33. De-Role-ing: (Also spelled deroling.) People in a group that uses sociodramatic techniques can at times explicitly dis-affiliate myself from a role or role component they were playing. This de-role-ing process includes having others agree clearly that the person de-roling is recognized as no longer being in that role.

34. Examining “Tele”: Moreno called the current of attraction or repulsion between individuals or among people in a group “tele.” I find that “rapport” is a rough equivalent term. Using Moreno’s contributions, it often helps to bring attention to feelings of interpersonal preference or to acknowledge this dynamic: Some people prefer to pair up or form a subgroup with certain others, and talking about this openly is important. It is admittedly a sensitive topic, but it is a reality of what is going on, and pretending that it isn’t in the long run is self-defeating. This is the point of sociometry.

Other associated implications of this principle include talking about group cohesion, what it would take for someone to feel safe in the group, having allies in the group, and weaving in other principles from sociometry. This approach takes into consideration a number of themes that are frequently overlooked (or repressed and denied) in traditional types of communications. For these reasons, I consider sociometry to be another dimension of depth psychology as well as an important facet of group dynamics.

I will be open to your emailing me and suggesting other categories. All the above items are ways in which communications can be expanded and made more meaningful. Moreno’s contributions of sociodrama, psychodrama, action techniques, sociometry, improvised and interactive drama, role theory, group work, and the like introduce new dimensions into ordinary conversations and discussions. Some of the aforementioned items have certain common elements:
– the goals of spontaneity and creativity;
– the development of psychological- mindedness—that is, a willingness to reflect on oneself as well as the situation, to think about one’s own thinking—also known as metacognition—;
– the use of action methods;
– the use of surplus reality (the realm of the imaginal or “what if…”);
– the many benefits of egalitarian group work and the benefits of talking about the processes and dynamics in the group;
– the use of playfulness, shifting positions, weaving in the provisional.
All these might be viewed as additional dimensions, frames of thinking, imagining, intuiting, feeling, sharing, and interacting.

Adam Blatner, M.D., TEP

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