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Role Reversal – The Engine of Psychodrama

October 26, 2011

Role reversal is the engine of psychodrama and is the most important and difficult technique to master. It is also the tool that trial lawyers familiar with psychodrama use most often.

You go through life with only your set of eyes and your perspective on life’s events. Role reversal is the technique of stepping into the role of another. It requires that you give up your own position and temporarily leave yourself to occupy and experience the role of someone else. Initially, you play the role by imitating what you have heard and seen the other person say and do. Ultimately, you progress to exploring the role itself by bringing your universal life experiences to it.

When you successfully reverse roles with another person, you have an opportunity to see life through that person’s eyes, even if only momentarily. You feel like him, think like him, and act like him. This concretized changing of roles allows you to look at yourself from the perspective of the other and from this vantage point, get a different vision of yourself. You might see how you come across and how others perceive you; at the same time, you gain a greater understanding of the other person. This is the gift of role reversal.

When you are truly able to stand in the shoes of another and see things from that person’s perspective, a role reversal has occurred. It is not a complete or valid role reversal, however, until you do it without judgment. “Playing different roles, allowing a situation to be seen from a variety of perspectives, automatically shifts awareness . . .”[1] In the context of a legal case, being able to see a situation from a variety of perspectives gives you a wealth of information from which to choose when creating a discovery plan, preparing for both direct and cross examination of witnesses, and putting together a persuasive story for trial.

There are several functions role reversal serves. The first is to gain information or insight into the role of the other. “What occurs in role reversal is that your perception of the role of the other begins to change when you shut off your own person.”[2] By standing in the shoes of another, you are able to look at a situation, event, or even yourself through the eyes of the other and form a new perspective. You gain an awareness that you previously didn’t know.

Additionally, by being in the role of the other, you begin to examine and understand that person’s choices and behaviors in the situation you are exploring. Similarly, you will experience great insight into the person’s motives and rationale for that behavior. Such understanding and insight is valuable, not only from a personal perspective, but from a professional one as well. When you are seeking to understand or determine the motivation of people or witnesses in a case, using this tool exposes and makes accessible information you may not be able to obtain from other sources.[3]

The actual physical task of reversing roles is quite simple. The difficulty lies in being able to step outside of yourself and set aside your own ego to truly experience the role of the other person.

Example: Role Reversal in a Discrimination Case

Imagine you are working on a case where your female client, a postal worker, suffered age discrimination at the hands of her supervisor. At some point in your preparation of the case, you may want to reverse roles with the supervisor to better understand his behavior, what motivates him, why he did what he did, who he is, and what he feels about your client. You may also want your client to reverse roles with the supervisor to help her show you her experience of the supervisor with exact language, intonation, and actions that he used. This will give you information about him that would not be available in a simple reporting of what he may have said or done. Role reversal brings the experience alive and makes it three-dimensional—you hear it, see it, and feel it— versus a one-dimensional narrative that is unlikely to provide as much valuable information or detail. Because your client knows the supervisor better than you and has greater knowledge about who this person is and why he behaved as he did, she can become an active participant in preparing the case.

Using the example of the supervisor in an age discrimination case, a step-by-step approach for role reversal follows:

  •           Physically move from the spot where you are standing in

your own role, to another spot where you will take on the

role of the supervisor. Moving to another spot in order

to actually change roles is important. It concretely marks

changing roles.

  •            Allow yourself to take on the role. What is your name?

How old are you? What do you look like? What color

are your hair and eyes? How tall are you? How are you

dressed? What type of shoes are you wearing?

Tyson Spoce [Lawyer is in role reversal with Tyson Spoce, the supervisor]: I am forty-seven years old. I have gray hair that I keep a little long. I am about six feet, three inches tall and in pretty good shape. I am wearing a postal service uniform, navy blue pants with a light blue short sleeve shirt. I am wearing black running shoes. I also have a wedding ring on my left hand and a college football ring on my right hand.

  •           Take a moment and feel yourself physically in the role.

How do you walk? Sit? Stand? What is your posture like?

Walk around in this new body. Do you shuffle or step

firmly? Feel your center of gravity.

Tyson Spoce: I have a bad back from a football injury so sometimes I walk with my left hand on my lower back. When my back is hurting I shift around a bit and I can’t sit in one position for very long. If I stand for long periods of time, I shift my weight back and forth between my feet.

  •           Once you have taken on the physical qualities of the su-

pervisor, continue exploring the role. How long have you

worked for the Postal Service? Why did you go to work

there? How is it that you became a supervisor? Do you like

your job? What are your job duties? What type of problems

do you have on your job? Who do you report to?

Tyson Spoce: I have worked for the postal service since I was  twenty-four years old. It has been my career. The pay is good   and I’m a manager. I worked my way up from postal carrier. I oversee the branch and supervise all the employees at this branch.

  •           As the supervisor, look at the plaintiff. How long have

you known her? When did you first meet? What do you

feel as you look at her? Describe your relationship with

her. How do you feel about your relationship with her?

What type of employee is she? Have you had any prob-

lems with her? What do you want from her? Why? Let us

hear your soliloquy (your inner thoughts that you might

not express aloud to anyone else) about her allegations

that you discriminated against her because of her age. Did

you discriminate against her? Perhaps you are unwilling

to use the word “discriminate.” If so, use the word you

would choose. Why did you behave in this way?

Tyson Spoce: Jenny Jones came to work in our branch about two years ago. She has always had an attitude problem. Maybe it is because she is older, I don’t know. As an older woman she seems to be pretty lonely. I have gone out of my way and have tried to be friendly with her. I even asked her to go to lunch with me on a number of times, but she refused. I also asked her to go out for drinks after work but she got all huffy and told me she didn’t think that would be appropriate. The younger employees love to hang out with me and go the extra mile. She just puts her time in and goes home. Her job here would be easier if she put a little more effort into being friendly with me. After all, I am her boss.

Role reversal need not be limited to exploration of parties and witnesses, although use with both can help you prepare both direct and cross examination questions as well as help you understand the events of the case through their eyes. You can also use this tool to help you gain insight into and understand jurors, opposing counsel, and even the judge.


[1] Tian Dayton, PhD., The Living Stage, A Step by Step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociometry and Experiential Group Therapy (Health Communications, Inc., 2005), 39.

[2] Zerka Moreno, Leif Dag Blomkvist, and Thomas Rutzel, Psychodrama: Sur- plus Reality And The Art Of Healing (Routledge, 2000), 74.

[3] Role Reversal can be used for a variety of purposes: (a) helping a person understand the role of another; (b) learning how one’s interactions affect the roles of others; (c) providing information about the individual’s social system; and, (d) making the subject aware of discrepancies in verbal and nonverbal communications. D. R. Buchanan, “Psychodrama.” In The Psychosocial Therapies: Part II of The Psychiatric Therapies, ed. T. B. Karasu, M.D. (Washington, D.C.,: The American Psychiatric Association, 1984), 792.

To learn more about psychodrama and how lawyers can and do use it to prepare for trial and present their case(s), see Trial In Action:The Persuasive Power of Psychodrama, J. Garcia-Colson, F. Sison, M. Peckham (2010) Trial Guides. http://www.trialguides.com/book/trial-in-action/

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