Saturday, January 13, 2007

Knee Jerk Night

Discussion formats are more completely described on the website, But Knee Jerk Night is a favorite and worth mentioning here.

Knee Jerk works like this:

You need a group of people, 10-20 is ideal. Less than that and its harder to get the ball rolling. More and you might get chaos or you'll find some people are shut out of the conversation.
Also you'll need a moderator. The moderator writes a list of controversial statements. For example, "The Minimum wage is bad for business", "Universal Health care is a right" and "The United States has a responsibility to spread democracy around the world" are all great examples. Next line up plenty of chairs in two opposing lines. One line is the the Disagree side, and the other is the Agree side.

Starting the discussion:
The moderator reads a statement, and all the participants must decide to either agree or disagree with it and jump to the corresponding row of chairs. A person isn't allowed to take more than a few seconds to make their knee jerk reaction to the statement. They will complain, and sometimes they will say they don't want to make a decision. But the moderator has got to try to pressure them to decide.

Once people have picked sides, they must argue the other side into changing their position. Everyone can talk at once, or people can take turns. That is up to the moderator and depends on the participants.

Why this game is a lot of fun:
This game works for a couple different categories of individuals. First, those who love talking about politics and are already opinionated are Expected to yell and shout at each other in this game. And the set up shows that it is so clearly a game that participants are unlikely to get upset. With Knee-Jerk, we are celebrating the fact that we disagree with each other.
Second, individuals less comfortable with taking positions can feel more prepared to do so, when taking a side is a requirement of the game. People feel less responsible for the choice they are making, and are therefore less hesitant to make it. And I have seen people that were hesitant to pick a side can get into the spirit of the debate and really let loose on the temporary enemy.

Finally, while this game emphasizes division, the end result is that it can be a powerful tool for unification. What I have always found is that participants get surprised by who they end up sitting next to. Conservatives and liberals sit next to each other as often as not. Knee Jerk demonstrates that our ideological divisions are cross-cutting. There is no "us v. them", but rather a complex salad of ideas, world-views, political theories and experiences. The whole group, by exploring the differences within it, finds traditional divisions are transgressed at every point.

So go ahead. Try Knee Jerk, and tell us how you liked it. What worked? What didn't? How can we make it better? What new discussion models did it inspire for you?


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