The exercise was straightforward, the instructions clear. We were given a warm-up scenario, and simply asked to agree or disagree. A line had been drawn down the middle of the room, and our job was to take a position, then seek to persuade others to step over to our side. During the introduction, my attention was drawn to one instruction in particular: Don’t be too fixed in your stance. Be open to the arguments you hear from the other side.
People immediately took their positions. Interestingly, many stayed there. Only a small group crossed the line in either direction. And in my recollection, throughout the whole exercise, it’s possible only three or four people crossed the line more than once. I was one of them.
As I listened to the various arguments, the alternative began to sound more appealing. Having been given permission to be flexible, it was easy to step over and join the others. I stood quietly in my new position. It’s funny how a physical movement across the room, noticed by everyone, makes it less necessary to explain yourself.
We are so used to holding on to our opinion, we barely even consider the prospect of seeing things from another viewpoint. The beauty of this exercise was not just the invitation to be open to alternatives, but also the physicality. We were being invited to move. To step over the line. To occupy a different space. It was liberating. It was fun, too. So much so that I was ready to do it again.
The second statement was the interesting one: Change Agents [trainers] must lead. Again, people took their positions – the vast majority on the ‘agree’ side. Not long into the task, having heard from the loudest voices and those prompted to explain or persuade, it became 12 against 1. Someone crossed back to their original choice to make it 11-2, and then I stepped over. It wasn’t that I had been persuaded by anything I’d heard. It was more that, having experienced the freedom once, I was keen to feel it again; as well as curious to see what it meant in this context.
Before I crossed, I ran it through my mind, freely seeking an argument that might belong on the other side of the line. It came to me easily, bringing with it an essence of the morning session: letting go. I stepped over. But there was still a piece missing, which only became apparent when it appeared: In the somewhat one-sided debate going on in front of me, someone mentioned the words, ‘Change Agent’ again. My argument was complete.
The thing was, I didn’t need to say anything. People had seen me step across. That was enough. More significantly, I felt that the experience was already complete. I didn’t need for anything else to happen. As the exercise came to a close, however, one of the trainers put his arm around me and said, ‘Jonathan, why don’t you end this session with what you have to say.’ Another invitation. This is what I said:
‘Change Agent’ implies that something needs to change, which itself suggests there is a need to let go of aspects of the old way of doing things. Letting go was one of themes of the feedback this morning, and for a number of the trainers it has been their takeaway. We need to be the example of what it means to let go. So change agents need to show, not lead.
Those words were the culmination of something bigger: a seamless flow of invitation and intention, combined with a playful curiosity keen enough to allow everything to unfold. In itself, a demonstration of letting go. Perhaps because of the words, but more likely because of the momentum they carried, people spontaneously applauded.