J. Atieno Fisher

Usoni method coach for groups and individuals

Interviewed by Jennifer Goldman — 2003

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 This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Ok. So the first thing I want to do is to ask you about your background. I have some sense of the field that you're in, but really, before we officially begin the interview; if you can tell me about your background, the work that you're currently doing, things that you think would be helpful for me to know, that would be great.

A: My background is actually in conflict. I have a Masters Degree in Conflict Transformation and was a religion major at Kenyon College, and I had a Watson Fellowship in which I studied non-university peace education in conflict regions; Africa, Europe, and Israel. That was prior to my Masters degree. Since my Masters degree, I've been working as a facilitator. But my field is called psychodrama, which is creative arts group psychotherapy. I'm not a therapist or a counselor or a social worker; I use it as a facilitator with groups. You know, as a coach or a trainer, and as an organizational development consultant. So I'm with the organizational development unit here at [omitted for confidentiality]. My approach has very much to do with action methods. Psychodrama is about concretizing sort of like a simulation for solving problems. Very much like the work that Augusto Boal did with educating illiterate farmers in Brazil. So, I actually have a note here; I wanted to mention Paulo Friere who is not new to people who study conflict. I would say his approach has informed me a lot. I grew up in Botswana. My parents were Mennonites. My parents were working there with the Mennonite Central Committee on development projects. That's all I can think of right now.

Q: That's really helpful. It's just a good way for me to get a sense of all the different kinds of questions that I might want to ask you in addition to the ones I've prepared; so that's great. Why don't we start I wanted to touch back to the people that you mentioned Paulo and Augusto, but why don't we start with you telling me a little bit more about what psychodrama is and how you define it, and how you use it with groups.

A: Jacob Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama, was responsible in large part for the burgeoning of group psychotherapy as a therapeutic modality. It began with his work with refugees and with prostitutes. He was a medical doctor, but he emigrated to the States during World War II. In psychodrama the classical format is- you have a group and the idea is that everybody is a therapist, all supporting the "protagonist," or person whose story you're actually looking at. So you know, you start out with some sharing and people checking in, the director would choose a protagonist, other people would play roles in the protagonist's story, and then you close with the sharing, where people can talk about how what happened links in with their own work. What happens during the action in the second of the three phases is that the director asks the protagonist "show me this " It's all about trying to expand role repertoire and expand access to spontaneity. It's like a laboratory for real life. So whatever role you want in your life that you're blocked from having; this is where you can look at: "What are the blocks? Where am I blocking myself? Where do I need to take responsibility?" And there's often a catharsis involved, either in an "Aha!" moment or in an emotional release. And the protagonist and everyone really enter very much into the story being enacted, as if it really is happening. So it's very different from talk therapy. That's the therapeutic version. The way that I use it is more as sociodrama; allowing people to project onto a theme and allowing people to play in a theme without there being just one protagonist; having a more generic story where everyone can be the protagonist. And I also use isolated techniques from psychodrama, such as role reversal. When I mediate conflicts between two parties I use the "Encounter" format so that they're actually taking the role of the other person. You know, standing behind the person and saying "I'm Jennifer and I'm feeling that Atieno is " -I would stand behind you and speak as you, and then you would have a chance to correct what I said and make it true for you. That's called role reversal.

Q: And the Encounter format?

A: Encounter [is for the purpose of helping parties resolve issues between them, and it] uses role reversal. Other techniques are the mirror; seeing someone else play [your role from outside the scene], and doubling. Doubling is when people in the larger group have the opportunity to stand behind the protagonist and [speak as the protagonist], so it's helping people clarify and say things they haven't said, or things that other people see that they're not aware of. The protagonist always has a chance to correct the doubling statement. I do psychodramatic work with the group that I work with independently, and I'm constantly walking that line between therapy and coaching. If there is severe pathology, I make referrals. But when we're talking about people who want another role in their life, or when we're talking about a group process where there's a theme that becomes very apparent in the warm-up phase, when everyone's checking in, [then we're in the realm of coaching, not therapy]. In the last group I directed, everyone kind of convened around the idea of breaking out of constraints and being more self-expressed and being able to play, being able to be spontaneous, which was perfect. Because psychodrama's really about accessing spontaneity, and spontaneity was Moreno's central concept. He actually was very religious about it, you know, that spontaneity flowed from an inner fount or "Godhead." It springs up in all of us and it's not something we can conserve, it's not something we can save for a rainy day. It's something that we have to constantly access in each moment to be able to address a situation adequately, or to address old situations with new approaches that are more adequate.

Q: And how I'm not sure whether what you're explaining to me is the way that you generally use this to help people get through tough situations, or whether, if you can walk me through another example using a classic conflict resolution or a conflict example.

A: Ok, so more in a conflict context.

Q: Yeah.

A: Ok. I can give you an example of one time when I was working with teenagers from the Middle East, and a young Jewish woman in the group said - from Israel said - to a Palestinian young man, "You always act like everything is just a big joke, and it bothers me." So I asked them if they were willing to go into an Encounter, they were. So they got in the middle of the circle and I asked [name omitted for confidentiality], "Do you ever remember a time where something was serious but you were laughing?" He said, "No, not really." But he came back fairly quickly and said, "Actually no. You know what, I do remember a time." And so we set out that time. He was with his family [in the occupied territories somewhere], and helicopters were there was bombing going on right by his house, and he had been very frightened, and his family was very frightened, his little sister was screaming, his father was trying to be brave, his mother was huddled in a corner. He was acting like - hey, I wanna see the helicopters. He was trying to blow it off like it was no big deal. And so we saw that. We had people playing members of his family, people from the group. And then I asked him to sculpt how he would want it to be. He had picked two different people to play the two sides of him. There was a sort of care-free, inauthentic [name omitted for confidentiality], and the [name omitted for confidentiality] inside who was actually quite frightened and concerned about his mother and little sister. I had him do most of it from outside rather than being in the scene again, because it was pretty traumatic [and I didn't want to take him there]. So he was watching this. And I had him sort of resculpt how he would have wanted the moment to be, and what he did was put his family together; instead of having them in different parts of the room isolated in their own trauma, he had them all touching. He had them lined up kind of like in a family portrait and they were all together. And [name omitted for confidentiality], who had initially had the complaint, saw a completely different context around his behavior. And then, you know, their conflict was completely transformed to another level. She no longer had that complaint about him and she understood where it was coming from, and she was edified about his story.

Q: Mhm.

A: So a lot of the work that I do has to do with having people really get each other's stories and recognize the way that the past is the script for the present, or the way that the conflict in the present is not about the present in a lot of ways.

Q: Can you say more about ?

A: It's about two stories coming together and kind of like hooking up. And when you can distinguish the two and have people take responsibility for their own projections. You know, uh, I'm trying to remember times that I've been in encounter and having to really look at ok, how are my complaints about the other person really just I'm bringing those. Those are my issues and I need to take responsibility for my issues. And the way that I'm listening to this person, the way that I'm perceiving this person, I really have them conflated with someone else in my past. I mean, if you're familiar with the concept of projection, that's basically what it is. So, in conflicts, I think if you can create the space where there is a listening for people to see each other's stories, and not just hear them, but I think there's something very powerful about seeing them. There's something powerful about drama, that's why psychodrama is my home, you know, professionally, because I really believe it offers something powerful. Does that answer your question?

Q: Yeah. That's extremely helpful, and I have a bunch of different thoughts that are coming out of what you just said that I'd like to kind of continue to go deeper into. So, starting with the last thing that you said about seeing versus hearing the story. Um, and also the emphasis on stories and understanding the other through the stories. Um, I'm interested what If there are frameworks, or theories, or kind of methodologies that inform, you know, that you can point to and say - yes, this is the theory that informs the way that I do my work; in terms of both listening and telling the stories, and also seeing versus hearing.

A: Moreno's writings are best summarized in - I don't know if you want book titles or not.

Q: Yeah, I do. And actually, what I want to ask you, and let me know if this would be ok, if you tell me names and general titles and things like that, and then I email you to prompt you to kind of send back whatever references would be helpful; would that be ok with you?

A: That's totally fine.

Q: Ok, that's great. So if you tell me them now, I'll get them down and then I can email them to you and you can respond.

A: Confirm and add

Q: Exactly.

A: Got it. Um, The essential Marino is by Jonathan Fox, who is a psychodramatist who read all the original German writings and summarized them. There are other books; actually, I could send you a whole long bibliography if you want to get really into psychodrama, but

Q: Yeah, that would be great.

A: Ok.

Q: That's what we're looking for. We're compiling things like that.

A: Ok. And there are, I mean, a lot of psychodramatists who are very interested in social change. I haven't been reading a lot of stuff lately, but There is also a methodology that's based on psychodrama called Playback Theater which is all about It's like a community building form. It's a theater performance form, so it's not therapy at all. I was in a Playback troupe here in D.C. for a couple of years and really I was trained several years back and I think that really informed me. I think I was trained at Playback before I was even trained in psychodrama. I was trained in psychodrama at a hospital for two years. And um, Playback Theater is essentially taking the mirror technique of psychodrama and expanding it into a theater form. So, you have an audience, you have a conductor, you have maybe five actors, a musician, and people from the audience come and take the chair beside the conductor and tell their story with the conductor's help. They put people/actors in the roles of their story; it doesn't have to be a person, but you know, like - "I'd like to have Bill play the car in the story," or whatever is the conductor really helps to isolate the key symbolic aspects. It's almost like, if you've ever done anything with Jung, or Gestalt might do it too, where you have pieces of a dream speak. Like each symbol in the dream has a voice. That's another thing you can do in psychodrama. Anyway, you cast different components of the story, watch the actors improvise it, play it back. That's why it's called Playback. And, everyone watches the story. The teller sees the story. It's all about honoring the teller's story. And, one story begets the next story, you know, and the next teller [builds on the last]. People are telling things that have happened to them. It's very community building, and it's very I would even use the word sacred.

Q: Do you use that method with people in conflict situations as well?

A: Um, at certain points in the conflict I would. You know, there has to be a space where people are ready and willing to listen with a good quality of listening; not judging, not about to take what they see and use it in some way against the teller. You know, there has to be a certain level of trust in the room. So, if you have that basis, yeah, you can use it with stories kind of as a point, counterpoint, point counterpoint way of communicating.

Q: It seems also like if you had, like back to the example you used earlier about the Israeli and the Palestinian teenagers in a room together. If you had a person from one group tell their story in this way, you'd have the other side listening; and it's another way to help them understand the person's story

A: Oh, yeah. That's what I meant by point counterpoint. It's like a conversation of this is what it's like for me. Oh, this is what it's like for me. And the nice thing about this, it's not about "Well, your story isn't valid because my story proves it wrong. No story is wrong. Every story is itself, and you just keep building layers, and layers, and layers of context which help people hold all the different poles of the story; of the total conflict story. And sometimes, you know, not all of the elements are there. What's really hard is when not all the elements are in the room. So if people are telling a story and you can see how structural violence has imposed something on their lives, how do you as a conductor put that role into the story and politicize it in a way that doesn't impose your own agenda on their story. Um, how do you - if you have a teller who says something that's unconsciously racist, how do you, unless you have people of that race in the room to bring that; how do you bring it and still honor the teller and not shame them, that kind of thing.

Q: I'm particularly struck by the idea that each side is telling their story, and while they're telling it, the other is listening. And the main purpose of the people who are not the teller at the moment, it sounds like is to listen.

A: Yeah, the witness role is extremely important.

Q: Can you talk more about the witness role and what that role is like?

A: Part of the benefit to the teller is that there are witnesses. So I'm not just telling my story into a hole in the ground. I'm telling it to these people and I'm seen you know, whatever has been unseen about this story is now seen. And that's why we have sharing in the psychodrama group is that once you put that all out there, it's very very important to get back. And almost always the information you get back is, "I know exactly what that's like," or "I had the same ." Yalom - a group therapy expert -- calls it universalization, I think. He has isolated the different therapeutic elements of group work, and one of them is that you realize that you're not alone. So it's very important [for the teller to be witnessed and understood] It's also a question of what the impact is on the witnesses. The next time they meet someone like the teller, they're able to reverse roles with that person in their head. They're able to probably have different behavior because they've got a different level of understanding and insight That's why I think everybody loves stories, we want to hear what it's like for each other. It's really it's a form of dialogue that is not like arguing or debate. And the people who are witnessing are also potential tellers.

Q: That's really helpful. I think that gives me a basic understanding, I think, about the types of things that you're talking about. What could be helpful to do, now that we've kind of gotten into the details, is to come back up to the kind of metalevel; and it would be interesting for me to hear from you about how in general you understand or think about enduring or intractable conflict situations.

A: I think of them from a theater perspective, which is: people are stuck in old scripts. People are replaying the same formula. And when people get into a pattern of "this is how the world is, this is how that other group is," you know, they're deep in the reality of their own story. They're just doomed to play it back over, and over, and over. Anything new that happens gets subsumed into the old script. So, I mean I think about the scripts that are operating right now. You know, the apocalyptic scripts or you know, the story of good and evil is older than the Judeo-Christian tradition. There's like these big, huge meta-scripts that we're all in, and then there're the personal scripts that invent as we live, grow-up, whatever. And it takes a lot of awareness. Once you start thinking about them as scripts, I think that the first step. That gives you the freedom to say you know, "Well which script am I going to choose?" And as soon as you get the choice around it, get that breathing space around something, and you have support for your creativity to be able to believe that you in fact can invent a new script, then anything is possible. But, I think the reason that some conflicts feel so impossible is that the scripts are so all-consuming. I have other, non-theater-related streams that have contributed to my thoughts on other fields, but I'm sure we'll get to that.

Q: Yeah. Well, this would be a good time to bring those in if you want to do that now.

A: Yeah, I'll just say a couple of things about trauma theory. I've actually written about this and most of what I've gotten is based on work by Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist, but has a public health perspective on violence. I really think that taking violence as a public health problem and looking at violence as not just "criminals commit violence," or "warring tribes commit violence," but really looking much more honestly at where violence exists, so that you see violence at every level as a manifestation of the same source, instead of dividing violence into types of violence. The way trauma comes in to what I was saying before is that, you know, people actually have physiological there are physiological effects of trauma. And those parts in our mind where we're backed into a corner exist separately from normal cognition; and they can be activated and, you know, the whole idea of trauma being transmitted inter-generationally I won't go into it, because I know we don't have time, but I have been very influenced by trauma theory. The other thing I wanted to mention was primatology and the social behavior of primates. I found that really fascinating to read about. And, one thing about that that occurs to me - I can't remember the name of the author. He was a Dutch guy who spent decades observing the monkeys in the Arnhem Zoo in Holland and

Q: Was it Vanderwal?

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Is he still doing the work now?

A: I think so.

Q: Ok.

A: But one of the things that struck me about what he reported in one of his books was that once a group of monkeys had seen a particular behavior . He watched them for ten years, and then suddenly there was a very violent interlude that resulted in one monkey dying. It came about because there was ambiguity in the hierarchy. And after that, the particular way that that monkey had been maimed, he started seeing that behavior from monkeys who had witnessed the incident. So, there's a way I think that this idea of crossing thresholds It actually scares me quite a bit because things that are unthinkable happen and then they're thinkable, and they become the norm almost. I think about that with like Hiroshima and that kind of thing. Maybe that can just serve as a quick point in that direction: primatology. And the other [field I want to mention] is food and population. A very uh I could talk incoherently for hours and I'm kind of embarrassed about how I got into it, through a fiction book by Daniel Quinn. He writes fiction about food and population and global problems. But then another much deeper examination of this was through - I'm sure you've heard of Jerod Diamond and Guns, Germs, and Steel. As we were able to grow more food, our population grew, put pressure on the surrounding populations. It also resulted in specialization, bureaucratization. Fighting and mass invasion became normal; and that's kind of what we're still playing out now; increased population, and increased specialization, and more technology. So we're still kind of operating as primates that grow up in bands of a hundred or whatever, but we're now a global system using those same animal brain stem mechanisms. We're humans equipped for something other than what we're dealing with now in terms of global systems, and we've got to figure out social technologies to short-circuit some of this insanity that's going on; in terms of tribalism. We really need global leadership, and what we have right now is highly You know, we have empire.

Q: So given the reality now, in an ideal world, what do you believe needs to happen to deal with this ?

A: That's a good question. I'd love to go to like a four day convention on that. I think part of the answer lies in ground-up decentralization. I think that nation-state system has some very serious flaws. I think there's also going to have to be some kind of transformation of the structures that are in place that are creating conflict, and what are the internal you know, personal conflict resolution needs to look at all of these levels. I mean, there are a lot of people who are very focused on inner work. You know, new age, whatever, and then there are people who are trying to do policy, and affordable housing and whatever, you know, the structural stuff, and there are people mediating neighborhoods. It's like how can we get we need to come at it from a lot of different angles and then what we call here at [omitted for confidentiality] - scaling up you know? Once we get something that works we need to figure out how to spread it.

.How can we do large group work that is going build a critical mass enough that there is change in the way structures are operating?... We'll spend millions of dollars on technology to keep people alive when they're very old, or when they have organ failure, whatever. All that's fabulous. Then they'll spend millions of dollars on technology to completely annihilate other human beings. It's weird. I forget what made me think of that now...

Q: We're on the topic of structural causes of conflict.

A: Right. How much sense does it make to be setting up structures to get profits, to suck profits out of places and constraining peoples lives. And then to set up other systems to try to make peoples lives better both happening through "development." We've got limited resources and we need to figure out how to make them work for everyone

Q: Interesting. Well, if I can play back to you a little bit of the main message that I'm taking from the different places that you're talking about, and tell me if I've got it right; and if not, correct me. You know, in answer to my question about in an ideal world, what do you believe needs to happen? It sounds like what you're saying is 1) structural causes of conflict need to be looked at better; and not only the structural ones, but all the way up and down, from the inner work that people are doing to the you know, the antipoverty work, to much more

A: Right, I think it's a loop. I think that we need new scripts inside our heads, because we're really going to create a future that's already in our brain. And so, we really need to have new scripts in our heads that inspire us, and then we can live there and we can set up I mean, that's the only way the structures are going to change; but also, people aren't going to be able to have the space to have that inner transformation unless we create situations where they can have that. Does that make sense?

Q: Yeah, so they need to have facilitated space to create the new scripts.

A: Um yeah, and it's not only just facilitated events, but it's things like I mean, you need time to be able to do this, so like you can't be always worrying about what you're going to eat. There's just so much there are so many basic needs that aren't being met and those are, I think, are because of the way things are structured. I'm not giving you the economist's version. But I really have noticed how patterns are on the micro, and then they're on the macro; and it's just all the way up and down. So any change you try to make in the micro isn't going be sustainable when the larger system that it is nested in is hostile to it. You know Maire Dugan's nested paradigm? I'm not saying anything new here.

Q: If you could use a metaphor or an image - and you already have talked about scripts in this way, but if you could talk about a metaphor or an image to describe the kinds of problematic situations, as well as hopeful situations

A: One that come to mind is the idea of spirits. When you're a psychodramatist you are looking very thematically, like, "What is the central concern of this group?" And people use this all the time. They say, in the spirit of this, or in the spirit of that. I have sort a category in my mind that there are things we don't see that operate. And I think also culturally, in a lot of cultures it really makes sense. People know exactly what you're talking about when you mention spirits. And it's just like a great metaphor to be able to use. I remember doing psychodrama with this Native American woman and she was talking about the Gods; and when I had her concretize them, they were her ancestors. That conversation that she was having with them was really the context for her whole story. So, I was thinking of when you're in a group and you recognize that there is a spirit here of fear, or of scarcity, or One thing that is really great about it is that it depersonalizes it. So instead of you know, this very narrow psychological focus on: "people need to be less selfish, they need to get over their fears," a focus on the people I don't need to tell you it's very threatening when it's like, "Oh, my identity is under attack?" Instead you can look at "Where is this spirit, it's inhabiting a group process." It's much less threatening, it's much more you know, a group can unite around - ok, let's not embody that spirit. Let's send that spirit. Let's embody this spirit that we want. It's a way of talking about it that takes it out of the realm of "I am selfish, or I am "

Q: The one would be - I'm selfish - versus - there's a spirit of selfishness that's in this group or in this room, and we want to let it go. Is that what you mean?

A: Yeah. Like there's a spirit and it's evident in you know, the upper levels of this institution. It's evident in how you know, we're In Pedagogy of the Oppressed there's the idea of themes too, millennial themes. Again, it's a metaphor. It's not like there's really something with horns that's in the room. It's just a way of sort of going - there's a pattern here; we can embody it, or we can embody a different one. You know, and how you work with that if you can work with that in a way that doesn't shame anybody, then you actually can transform something where you're not making people defensive. I think that's one really useful aspect of looking at it that way.

Q: It's really helpful. Yeah, and it makes sense to me in the way that I'm the word that I'm thinking about that you're using as an spirit. It could be energy; you know, there's energy here that exists that's not

A: I really like the word pattern as well. It's like a pattern, an idea of patterns having kind of a life of their own. And it's all, I think, linked to the new science too. Like we see physical bodies, but there's you know, like energy. It's really all kind of like concentrated energy. Or chaos theory, and the idea of seeing patterns instead of seeing individuals and matter. I'm not scientifically inclined, so I can't say I get much more poetic when I try to talk about physics but and I'm sort of stopping again because I feel like I'm parroting ideas you're probably very familiar with in your own work.

Q: Um, I can't say that that's the case. No, really, it's been a fascinating conversation for me because so much of what you're saying is so not familiar to me at all, so it's really helpful. I do recognize the time, and I would love to hear whatever closing thoughts you would like to share.

A: Just to reiterate that violence is one phenomenon with a lot of different faces. Approach it as a singular entity, or spirit, (rather than a particular means to an end that might be good if in the "right" hands). I always think there's a lot of value, by the way, in looking at things strictly as events. Really all that happened is you know, X, and then Y, and then Z. But we've got this whole thing about "It's terrible, it's bad, it's wrong." To see events without meanings attached creates a lot of space around a conflict, the kind of space that's the antidote to grasping onto your scripted intractable conflict. As happens when people get deep, deep, deep in a story and can't claw their way out.

Q: Right. So does that mean that when..so that one of the benefits of acting out the story is that it helps people separate the event from their interpretation of the event, which helps in helping them to understand the causes or the dynamics that are involved in the situation?

A: I wasn't even thinking about it from a psychodramatic perspective, but yes, you always reach a point in the drama when you're like - this is your life, this is your drama, this is your future. What are you going to put into your future? It's de-roling from the victim. It's like you're in the victim role and it's not bad, it's not wrong. You know, like this, this and this happened to you; and now you have these, these and these feelings. And that's just exactly right for what happened you know, that's how we're made to react. Now, how long do you want to stay there? It's fine to stay there. But you wouldn't be here doing this story if you weren't a little bit ready to say, "I'm ready to let go of that role. I'm ready to create a new role for myself. I'm ready to give up the payoff of being a victim." You know, the payoff of being a victim is sometimes so sweet.

Q: What do you think the payoffs of being a victim are?

A: You're right, they're wrong. I mean, being right is very sweet. I mean at least for me, I know I can speak for myself. You know, "Our group is wronged by those bad people." And I mean, it's not to say that they're not wronged by those people or that really inhuman atrocities and injustice have not been committed. It's one of those things about holding both poles, where it's not about shoving justice under the rug at all or abandoning the need for structural change and stopping violence; but it's about how can I live my life most powerfully. And getting what I want through being a victim is not powerful. You know, calling on my victim identity to dominate other people is not powerful. It doesn't bring any internal peace, and it doesn't leave any room for the other person's victim story.