By Jeroen Robbe
Columbian Hypnosis is a theatrical group exercise which explores our tendencies and assumptions around power and leadership.
Colombian Hypnosis is a theatrical exercise popularized by Augusto Boal. It might be one of the most used exercises from the Theatre of the Oppressed arsenal. In the most common version of the exercise one participant is leading another one with their hand. The “follower” uses their head to keep track of the movements made by the “leader”. Many variations complicate these processes of leading and following.
The tool has many potential applications in training settings. It can for instance be used as a warming-up exercise, to get into our bodies and get those muscles awake. You can adapt the exercise in order to use it early on in a longer training, to support building a group container for participants and to allow them to get to know each other, build trust and express boundaries. Facilitators familiar with the Theatre of the Oppressed also use the exercise to create spontaneous images (when you ask pairs to freeze during the process) that serve as a metaphor to explore more systemic issues of power or oppression.
At the same time experiencing Colombian Hypnosis offers an interesting opportunity to familiarize ourselves with dynamics of “leading” and “following”, as well as the questions of power that arise when exploring those.
How does this tool support leaderful movements?
Building leaderful movements implies that we all get comfortable with taking a lead, as well as with following instructions, depending on what the circumstances ask us to do. Moreover, in healthy movements we have to become increasingly able to switch gears back and forward between both.
Many groups struggle to develop structures that enable activists the flexibility to step up and step back, when it serves the purpose of the work. Not in the least because it also requires an individual attitude rooted in humility (when it is time to take a step back), as well as confidence and responsibility (when called upon to lead) to be able to do so.
The Colombian Hypnosis exercise supports training for leaderful organizing by offering an embodied experience allowing us to explore our tendencies and assumptions around power and leadership. These are also the leaderful organizing competencies addressed primarily by this tool, while on another level Colombian Hypnosis can be used to explore communication on a deeper level.
Not all communication needs to be dominated by the spoken word, as there is much to learn from the subtleties of the non-verbal communication expressed as part of the dynamics during the exercise.
While there is already much value in the direct experience of the embodied exercise, adding time for a thoughtful debrief will also support participants to complicate their thinking on what it means to lead and to get rid of the idea that leadership is merely an individual role or quality.
In the most basic version of the exercise a group is split into pairs, and in each pair one participant will “lead” and one will “follow”. Roles can later be switched.
The facilitator demonstrates the exercise with a volunteer or a co-facilitator and shares a simple instruction: “follow the hand of the person leading with your face, while always trying to maintain the same distance to the hand”. Imagine the follower being hypnotized by the hand of the leader.
Augusto Boal describes several variations of this exercise in his book Games for Actors and Non-Actors (translated to English by Adrian Jackson and published by Routledge), such as:
- one leader, one follower (the standard version described above)
- one leader, two followers (the leader uses both hands, each followed by one other participant’s face)
- hypnosis with different body parts
When starting to explore the topic of leaderful organizing as part of the project that led to this toolkit, Jeroen Robbe had used the Colombian Hypnosis exercise for many years, while doing more classical Theatre of the Oppressed work at LABO vzw. He wanted to use Colombian Hypnosis to explore the dynamics of leading and following on a deeper, embodied level, as well as using the flow of the exercise to analyze how these show up in our work in organizations.
What follows is a description of the process, sequence and flow of the exercise, including debrief questions, which he developed for this purpose.
1. One leader, one follower
Every new variation starts with a short demonstration by the facilitator. While setting out the rules of the exercise I recommend asking participants to try to do the exercise in silence.
There is no need for spoken instructions within the pairs: the hands and bodies will do the talking. Silence encourages full concentration and focus on what is happening in your pair. It also makes it easier for the facilitator to add prompts, remind participants of a rule, to invite them to switch roles or to freeze the scene.
Start with the basic version: have the group divided into pairs and let pairs decide who is “A” and who is “B”. A will start to lead, B will start to follow and roles will switch after a few minutes, when B’s will become leaders and A’s followers.
It’s important to always pay attention to the dynamics that arise in the group and it doesn’t harm to name them. The participants are invited to do the exercise in silence, but that doesn’t mean you can’t speak!
Some of the instructions I often give/remind of either beforehand or during the exercise:
- “It’s not a competition. Leaders, don’t rush. Take some time to build up and try to be responsive if you feel your partner can’t follow.”
- “When you follow, always respect your own boundaries. The leader is guiding you, but you can choose how far you go in following. Don’t hurt yourself!”
- “Leaders: be aware of what happens around you. You are not the only pair! Focus on your partner, but try not to bump into others.”
- “If you feel you have a good flow, see if you can add some challenge by increasing speed of some more challenging movements.”
Once everyone had a chance to lead and to follow, introduce and demonstrate the next variation.
2. Lead while following
In the same pairs, now invite all participants to stretch their right hand in front of them. They will lead with their right hand the face of their partner and at the same time they will be led by their partner’s right hand.
This variation already adds quite some complexity as some instructions might be incompatible or really stretch participants to their limits.
- What type of dynamics do you see unfold?
- Do they find a balance?
- Is the dynamic within pairs competitive or rather cooperative? No need to mention this aloud, but notice, so you can return to it during the debrief.
Of course: it does not harm to remind participants of the presence of other pairs in the room and to make them aware of the risk of bumping into them when you don’t pay attention.
3. One leader, two followers
This variation is also mentioned by Augusto Boal.
- Here the pairs are broken up and new groups of three are formed.
- Ask the groups to decide who is A, who is B and who is C.
- Again, if time allows, it’s good to give each participant an opportunity to lead, as well as to follow. In this bit they will actually twice be a follower of a different member in their group.
- First A will lead, then B will take over the lead and C will be the last one to lead both others.
- The leader leads with two hands, each guiding one of the other participants.
4. Lead while following in threes
Same as above, only now you ask A to lead B, while B will lead C and C will lead A.
5. Threes with an outside distraction
In this variation, there usually is one leader and there are two followers. But this time around we add an extra challenge for the leader.
You ask the leaders to continue leading, while instructing them to follow a knee or an elbow of any other person in the space who is not part of their group of three. Moreover you can instruct them that it is very important that they never lose sight of this body part of the chosen person at any time.
This version often guarantees a good dose of chaos and will most of the time challenge the followers to keep track of their distracted leader.
Bonus versions to wrap it up
- In a full circle with all participants: everyone is guiding the person to their left and following the person to their right. Can the group find a nice rhythm to keep up with each other?
- One leader, many followers: one leader stands in the middle of the space and uses both hands to guide all other participants gathered around. This might seem a much less leaderful dynamic, but you can either use it as a way to contrast this situations with different types of leadership or to explore the power and possibility that occasionally might be unlocked by this type of leadership when its power is wielded gracefully.
Fun fact: this version was actually made up by my colleague Hanae unintentionally, as she intended to explain to a group a different version but she didn’t get what I meant. What unfolded was both unexpected and quite magical!
- Don’t let you be limited by the variations described in this write up, but feel free to come up with your own!
Both the direct experience of the exercise as well as a proper debrief will support the learning. I encourage facilitators to plan enough time in their training schedule for a proper debrief to reflect on what just happened and to extract any learning of meaning that arose during the exercise.
In a debrief I would generally start with questions focussing on the immediate experience:
- How did this feel?
- Who preferred to lead or who had a preference for being led? (With a show of hands, before inviting some participants to speak up.)
- What felt more comfortable to you? Why?
- How did dynamics shift throughout the sequence?
Make sure to adapt the debrief questions to better reflect or acknowledge the dynamics that you noticed during the actual exercise and give an opportunity to analyze those as a group. If in the beginning of the exercise some participants prefer not to take an active part, you can also invite them to observe and to share noticings during the debrief.
Once there has been opportunity to reflect on the immediate exercise, I encourage some deeper analysis by offering the dynamics of the exercise as a metaphor for our work in groups:
- Have you ever experienced something similar in a group you have been involved in? What happened? Could you tell us more?
- How does what you just described reflect dynamics you know from your organizing?
- How is that relevant when we work with others in groups?
- Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal (See description on pages 51 – 55 in the third edition of the book)
- More tools from the Leaderful Organizing Collection
- Diagnostic Tools for Trainers and Facilitators
- Games and energisers for your workshop
- Gamestorming: A Set of Innovative Co-creation Tools
- The Pt’chang Games List
- Training Resources