Folks, I was honored to contribute a chapter to Stories Mediators Tell: World Edition, which I’m posting here with the generous permission of editors Lela Love and Glen Parker. To read more far-flung mediator stories from Earth, get your very own copy here.
BALLS: A TRAINING DAY STORY
In which I share my semi-addled recollection from around 15 years ago, of a pivotal experience in facilitating large, divided groups.
You may have seen the movie Training Day, in which a young cop played by Ethan Hawke is assigned to undercover duty with a seasoned detective played by Denzel Washington. In a superb performance, Washington chews the scenery like Henry VIII gnawing on an oversized turkey leg. He plays the role with an inscrutable malevolence that leaves his partner, and the viewer, perplexed about his ethics, allegiances, motivations, and sanity. This story is about my Training Day experience, when I was working in Eastern Europe to promote dialogue between the Roma and majority populations.
A few words about the Roma: Commonly known as Gypsies (an ethnic slur – hence the phrase “to gyp” somebody), they emigrated from India more than a thousand years ago, leading a nomadic lifestyle for most of their history. Under the Soviet-controlled regimes, they were forced to give up their wanderings and stay put. After the 1989 revolutions throughout the region, the Roma experienced sever hardships as social safety nets disintegrated. This exacerbated the discrimination, oppression, violence, poverty, racism, and fear they already faced. As democratic ideals were on the rise for many, Roma and other minorities became increasingly disenfranchised. Many Roma lived (and still live) in settlements separated from the majority community, facing dire poverty and social isolation. Like many marginalized groups deprived of economic opportunities, crime among some Roma groups is high, leading to all kinds of negative images in the media and among the general public. In some places, Roma kids, to this day, are automatically placed in schools for the mentally disabled, just because they’re Roma.
My role, working for PartnersGlobal, was to help promote dialogue between municipal leaders (who were all non-Roma) and the local Roma populations in highly divided communities. I had the great privilege of working for six months in Slovakia with one of my mentors in the conflict resolution field. His name is Bolek (name changed to protect…me).
I was Ethan Hawke to Bolek’s Denzel Washington, and our job was to bring these two mistrustful groups together to build consensus and cooperate on shared community needs. At this point, the groups typically saw each other as one-dimensional, negative stereotypes: the Roma were thieving loafers, the local government folks were racist oppressors. This was an opportunity for the groups to three-dimensionalize each other and, just maybe, find ways to work together.
Sunrise. Bratislava, Slovakia. I’m accompanying Bolek to the first meeting of Roma and local government leaders in a town of about 20,000 people, maybe a quarter of whom were Roma. I’d known and admired Bolek for years, but always found him hard to read. As a trainer, facilitator and mediator, he was brilliant: present, animated, witty, creative, and insightful. One on one – I just didn’t get him. I didn’t know how to interpret his quiet demeanor and thousand yard stare – was he shy? Reflective? Was there something about me that just pissed him off? Anyway, It was really important to me that Bolek liked me, and didn’t see me as yet another clueless, out-of-his-depth American. (Which I was.)
So now we’re packing all of our gear into the car. We had the usual facilitation accouterments — flipcharts, markers, paper, etc. – and Bolek says: “grab sack of balls.” My mind whirred over how to formulate a witty comeback to a possible Slavic double-entendre.
Then he pointed to a huge nylon bag, which was indeed full of balls, lots of them. I took a peek inside and saw, inter alia:
- A baseball
- A ping-pong ball
- A tennis ball
- A cricket ball I think?
- A basketball
- A rubber spiky ball that lit up
- A small football (American),
- A smiley face ball
- Several balls that looked like shrunken heads
- A series of balls painted to look like planets
- A squash ball (I think)
- A very realistic-looking rubber egg
- A flattened ball for playing hockey (Editor’s note: it’s called a puck.)
- Some marbles
- A few very large ball bearings
- A bocce ball
- A bunch of bouncy superballs
And many more. Probably about a hundred balls in the ball bag. Here’s what I remember of our ensuing conversation:
Me: Hey Bolek, what are the balls for?
Bolek: Everywhere I go, I collect balls. This is my collection. I also collect hats.
Me: Yeah but what are they for?
Bolek: To keep my head warm.
Me: I mean the ba—
Bolek: Get in the car. It’s a long drive.
It was, in fact, a long drive. And a really quiet one, punctuated only by my inept and unreciprocated attempts at casual chitchat. Bolek’s not really a casual chitchat kind of guy. But the Slovak countryside was lovely. You should visit it sometime.
Casing the joint.
After an eternity, we arrived in the town. My job was to do whatever Bolek told me and stay out of his way. We pulled up to the local City Hall, a crumbling Stalinist Gothic affair. A taciturn staff person (imagine the Addams Family’s Lurch, without the charm) led us downstairs to a basement that was painted in 1950’s hospital gray-green, with a few lighter gray-green rectangles where I reckon portraits of disgraced Soviet leaders used to hang. The air was redolent with Eau de Bingo Parlor, the room filled with round tables surrounded by ducked-taped vinyl chairs that could have come from my local Chinese takeout joint.
The participants began to stream in. The Roma eyed the place warily, waiting for the other shoe to drop, probably on their heads. The municipal leaders eyed the Roma equally warily, possibly worried they’d steal their shoes.
The two groups clustered amongst themselves, nervously chatting and stealthily eyeballing the other group, like boys and girls during the first hour of a junior high school dance. With feline grace, Bolek got the participants seated, so that each of the five tables had a mix of at least three Roma and three local government folks. To this day, one thing I am terrible at is dividing participants into groups. When I have to count people off and sort them something always goes terribly wrong. (Math – forget about it.)
What followed was much fidgety silent awkwardness at each table. An expert in non-verbal communication would have had a field day, what with the crossed arms, furtive darting glances, shifting in chairs, and micro-gestures a go-go.
At this point, I was expecting Bolek to make some announcement, perhaps build a meeting agenda, facilitate some introductions – the usual. In my experience, in that part of the world ceremonial introductions are kind of a big deal.
Instead, Bolek, in the most he’d spoken to me in the four hours we’d been together, said:
“OK. Take the ball bag, and dump an equal amount of balls on each table. Do it quickly, so they won’t know what hit them. Also, try not to hit them. Then get out of the way because all hell will break loose.”
All hell broke loose. I did what he said, dashing from table to table, unleashing the balls.
A hard rain of balls of all sizes, colors and densities befell the unsuspecting participants. Roma and non-Roma alike darted about frantically, some dodging balls, some catching them, some batting them out of the way. A Roma and non-Roma simultaneously tried to pick up the same ball and bonked heads and literally (by which I mean figuratively) chirping cartoon bluebirds circled their heads. Followed, to my great relief, by much laughter. (This could have ended badly, given the tension between the groups). A new, rule-less sport that combined dodgeball, catch, juggling, and bouncing seemed to emerge. It was like a gym class turducken. Tension and animosity swiftly turned into pure play.
Bolek and I finally called the group to order, and after the last ball bounced, he said “Okay, now each table decide on which is the best ball.” He avoided the participants’ quizzical looks and evaded their questions.
After about ten minutes of heated – but friendly – chatter among the groups, Bolek asked each table if they were able to decide on the best ball. Each table answered ‘no.’ Participants felt pretty strongly as individuals as to which ball was best. There were factions within the tables, crossing ethnic lines, so it was pretty cool to see a Roma and non-Roma fiercely defending a tennis ball, together. There were no longer Roma and non-Roma – just ball aficionados.
“How do we measure what makes one ball better than another? Each table, please come up with a list of what criteria should go into deciding what ball is best. Forget about which ball you like the most, let’s just figure out how to figure that out.”
More spirited discussion ensued — it was hard to imagine that these were the same people giving each other side-eye only moments ago — and ultimately each group managed to agree upon how to best assess ball quality. (I picked up one of the planet-painted balls and made a joke about “Uranus.” Bolek’s silence indicated that it was more of a thought piece than a knee-slapper. Also, I’m an idiot.)
Anyway, the ball-judging criteria included:
- Connection to a favorite sport
Bolek then gave the mini-est of mini lectures on why objective criteria are important in coming up with creative approaches to resolving conflicts, which the group had just unwittingly demonstrated through play…while allowing them to bond and play across sharply divided lines. It was the most fun and accessible way I’ve seen Fisher & Ury broken down.
Bolek then repeated the exercise – this time without balls, and with the question “What criteria should we use to determine the problems facing your community?” Given the tensions and deep mistrust, one might expect this to end in a shouting match, not unlike what many American “Town Hall” meetings have become. However, they pretty quickly came up with agreed-upon themes – safety, hygiene, education, and housing were (as I recall) the biggies. These may seem obvious – but to get these two opposed groups on the same page was incredible. Agreement on how to face these challenges was far down the road – and I’ll save that for another story. But the groups at least agreed upon what to talk about, and, equally importantly, they were actually talking. Bolek’s zany ball exercise primed the participants to build a solid agenda for moving forward, and allowed for a genuine, human connection that paid off in unprecedented cooperation between the groups.
As we packed up our gear, amidst participants shaking hands, laughing, and exchanging contact info, I asked:
“Hey Bolek, you had pretty much every imaginable ball except a soccer ball. How come?”
Bolek’s response: “We’re Europeans. Everyone would choose the soccer ball as the best one. And no one would touch it with their hands.”
(This turned out to be true. Soccer players can’t use their hands, except for the “goalie.” It’s the Riverdance of sports.)
If you haven’t seen Training Day, I won’t spoil it, so see it yourself to find out whether Denzel’s character was a good cop, bad cop, or cop-on-the-edge-just-one-day-shy-of-retirement. With Bolek, I learned that – like many practitioners (and entertainers for that matter) – he lit up in front of groups, and was really reserved one-on-one. That’s just how he rolled. And he seemed to put himself in a kind of trance-like zone before mediating, facilitating, or training – as if to charge his mental batteries before unleashing his creativity and charisma. He gave so much of himself when in performance mode, and seemed to need to power down when not “on.” I get that now. I am that guy.
I gained so much from that day with Bolek, and I often channel the experience when working with large groups. Here are five things that stick with me:
- Laughing brains are more absorbent. Getting people to laugh together in consensus-building processes can make all the difference. We can be tempted to assume that “serious” people will only respond to seriousness, and conflate seriousness with professionalism. Bolek inspired me to use humor, theater, art, music and mischief in my work. This stuff makes our brains more open and less guarded. We learn more and we listen better.
- There can be fun and games without anybody losing an eye. Games can be seamlessly integrated into dialogue processes. Of course, it takes a special touch to do it in a way that feels natural and respectful. Whether I’m facilitating for the police, United Nations diplomats, building residents, or people bravely facing mental illness, I integrated games and deceptively silly exercises.
- Icebreakers are best when they have a point. (Maybe we should call them icepicks. See what I did there?) Group exercises and games that can be immediately transferred into a tangible, usable concept.
- We all need our Mr. Miyagis and Yodas. I.e., mentors. Whether through shadowing, a formal apprenticeship, or merely observing, it’s so important to have someone who will push you beyond your comfort zone…and someone you can channel during difficult moments.
- Always bring your ball bag, you never now when you might need it. I schlep lots of props with me to facilitations and trainings…talking pieces, drawings, toys, video clips, building blocks, latex gloves, rubber ducks and more.
 I’d say about 80% accurate, not including identifying info altered to protect confidentiality.
 The turducken is a culinary abomination wherein a deboned chicken is stuffed into a deboned duck, which is in turn stuffed into a deboned turkey. I may have gotten the order wrong.
 Go watch some 1980’s movies.