Role awareness is a dynamic and practical way to develop greater awareness of diversity. We can use role awareness to better understand our own thinking and behavior and importantly, have insightful glimpses into the thinking, feeling and experiences of others who are apparently different from us.
The particular kind of role awareness that will be covered in this article is based on the Process Oriented Psychology (or Process Work) of Arnold and Amy Mindell. Basically, a role is a position or point of view which may be momentary or long-standing. Roles may be social ones such as mother, father, sibling or friend. A structural role is one that exists within a given group, such as a manager or president. Psychological roles are the often implicit ways how a given individual will think and behave within a given context. Examples of psychological roles are: critic, supporter, care-taker, “devil’s advocate,” insider or outsider.
With regard to human diversity, two main roles are the relatively privileged one and the marginalized one. The privileged one is often connected to being central or “mainstream” within a given organization, community, society or system. The marginalized one is often connected to being a minority within a given system. Social factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, physical and mental ability, etc., have been measurably linked to the likelihood that a person will live in relative privilege or poverty. Thus, the distinction between privileged and marginal in terms of our lived experience, or role, can be vast with regard to basic assumptions about: life, success, health, financial well-being and ultimately, our place in the world.
With personal and awareness development in mind, it can be very helpful to consider the roles we gravitate towards in life and those we avoid, or with whom we conflict. For example, we might find a tendency to be in supportive roles but avoid leadership, or we might tend towards peace yet struggle with aggressive ones, etc. It can be helpful to appreciate and support our main way and also see how the “other,” as represented by the role we find difficult, may be a style to integrate in our journey towards greater wholeness and diversity awareness.
Consciousness of roles can help clarify where we possess and lack diversity awareness as individuals, teams, organizations and communities and therefore how we might grow as we look in our different contexts at who and what is included or not. For example, an individual might want to approach a role or style that has historically been difficult to accept because that other role holds qualities that she or he seems to lack. A team or organization may see that its main approach is good but notices that one team member possesses a different style; this member often gets ignored but with some appreciation and experimentation, the group notices that positive changes occur when this other way is also recognized and supported. A community may notice how a subgroup within the community is marginalized and begins to take steps to get to know and include these people and the diversity they represent, diversity that was previously excluded.
Role awareness can happen in a moment. Once, when my son Gabe was about 3 or 4, I spontaneously asked him if he wanted to play a game. He said, “Sure.” I said, “You be the daddy and I’ll be the baby.” “Ok,” he said. Then I offered, “Daddy, let’s play.” Without any hesitation he shot back, “Forget it, I’m too busy.” When I tell this story today I typically get laughs and it is funny but it also demonstrates how even a child can immediately grasp one of the most relevant aspects of a role even while he may not know other important aspects. And he knows this aspect because he is already in touch with it: in my case, my busy nature. As we start to explore unfamiliar roles we may initially think we know little about the role but we often find vital aspects of the role because, at some level, we are in touch with that aspect, at least in our minds, if not in relationship.
One community group had begun to look at the roles of older and younger members. The group’s “mainstream” mostly consisted of the “older” ones and tended to marginalize the ideas and contributions of the “younger” ones. The younger ones felt slighted, less important and gossiped about the ageism in the group. The older ones secretly feared the younger ones would have better ideas, and replace them and so clung to their power and traditions. An exploration of these roles brought out that both parts were important for the group’s health and functioning. Furthermore, with support for “switching roles,” and older members exploring the “younger” one inside them and younger members finding the “older” one inside, many individuals found that they each possessed both roles and that insight brought relief, greater understanding and connection.
An activist organization had struggled to fight an effective battle against a part of society that it saw as hugely problematic for the world. It also had significant infighting amongst its members which greatly impacted its internal communication and relationships. Upon exploration the group found that the quality of the social “enemy” that it had pitched itself against was the same quality that had appeared within the organization itself. Some of the group members had the insight that the emergence of this quality was not only problematic and embarrassing; it also suggested that the “enemy” is within, more understandable and even sometimes needed within the organization.
As shown in the above examples, role awareness work can assist relationship and conflict work as it helps us clarify and understand the issue at hand, provides a structure for interaction, helps us gather information about a given position, and can offer a way to take relationship problems less personally on the one hand and be a mechanism for getting personal and interpersonal when we are struggling to engage on the other hand. Lastly, role work has the huge benefit of role switching, which is probably the quickest way to gain understanding, de-escalate conflict, build connection and deepen our awareness of diversity. Yes, we can learn about privilege
and marginality from the outside but we may deepen our understanding by exploring how we also hold the other role within.
An important part of our human development and interaction is fully representing and expressing our individual and group interests and points of view. An equally important step, in my mind, is getting to know unfamiliar, foreign and even disturbing “others,” and importantly, getting to know these “others” not just from our own positions, but from within the other’s point of view. Folk wisdom has us “take a mile in someone else’s shoes.” There are many ways to get to know others; we may sometimes travel to connect with different people and cultures, push ourselves at times to talk to someone we’d ordinarily avoid, read about the thoughts and experiences of different peoples and yes, we can “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Get to know your own roles and get to know other roles, especially, when you can, the most disturbing ones. That will help grow your diversity awareness.