Dr. Sharon Livingston
The Snow White Theory of Group Dynamics
People often ask me about the techniques I use and teach to Moderators and Coaches. How did I learn them myself and how did I come up with Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs model of group dynamics, in particular. AND, of course, how can they learn the techniques and exercises themselves.
My style of group moderating was a combination of nature and nurture. I was naturally a people person and raised to be a group leader sensitive to the needs of others from the time I was born.
The reason I’m sharing this story right now is that Thirty years ago in June of 1989 I formulated my Snow White Theory of Group Dynamics - how to understand and engage the individuals in a group.
A little background.
When the doctor handed me to my mother, he told her she gave birth to Snow White because I had “lips red as the rose. hair black as ebony, and skin white as snow.” I heard this story many, many times over the years as I was growing up.
The metaphor from the doctor took on meaning and stuck. I played Snow White in my family. Like Snow White in contrast to Disney’s dwarfs, I was the only tall one in a family full of munchkins. My Mom was 4’9” and Dad was just barely 5’3”. At that time, there were eight of us in my home; Mom, Dad, Grandma and four siblings; Snow White plus the seven dwarfs with all their personalities intact. Dad was Grumpy. Mom was Happy. Sister was Sneezy. Brother one was Sleepy. Brother Two was Bashful. Grandma was Dopey and Brother three was Doc.
Learning to live with this disparate cast of characters primed me for dealing with group process very early on.
I started running Focus Groups for Warner Lambert in the very beginning of my career. It was a great training ground. I ran groups on many topics that first year. As I was asking questions I became aware of interactions from different people. Interestingly, where people sat seemed to have some impact on how they presented. For example, the person to my immediate right was always very eager to cooperate, while the person sitting at the end of the table tended to be either contentious or a know-it-all.
In one series of groups on cold medicines, it struck me that we had people in the group who might be compared to Disney’s Dwarfs. When I thought about it more, those same types of people tended to take the same seats in many groups. It was just more obvious with this subject matter.
Sneezy was busy blowing his nose, coughing and complaining about the temperature, sitting in the seat directly to my left.
Grumpy was sitting across from me taking issue with everything and everyone.
Doc was sitting next to him asserting his expertise.
Dopey was on the other side of Doc telling sophomoric, silly jokes.
Sleepy was dozing off next to Dopey trying to hide in the middle.
And of course, my highly compliant right hand man was Happy.
Poor Bashful was hiding in the middle of the table next to Sneezy, blushing whenever he thought he might have the wrong response.
When I first started teaching Leadership and Research Moderation Techniques, I had to create a training program that addressed the three critical aspects of running any group: the task, the group and the individuals.
In thinking about how to teach about the characteristics of the different people who attend groups, I realized I had a great model based on the story of Snow White. It related so well to the individuals I observed in all kinds of groups – personal growth groups, focus groups, training groups. There were typical patterns including where people sat, how they presented themselves verbally and non-verbally and what interventions the leader could make to help them engage authentically. It was an exciting moment for me to realize I had found a home for the Snow White metaphor.
Snow White Theory teaches facilitators how to identify, understand and work with the particular types of people that show up in any group meeting.
My family served me well in teaching me how to react to the characters themselves as well as the group as a whole. For example, my three big brothers liked to “tease.” So I had to quickly learn how to manage aggressive and difficult group members. People tell me it’s particularly useful in dealing with Grumpies and Docs who try to take control of the group process.
I learned that dealing directly with the apparent behaviors of the seven characters didn’t work well. For example, with Grumpy, fighting fire with fire could be a disaster, inflaming the group.
On the other hand, being nice to Happy made him more compliant but not genuine, so I wasn’t learning how he really thought and felt.
I studied seating position and researched the types of group participants that could be called one of the 7 Dwarfs. I learned that what each really needed to be a true participant was very different from what they presented. How they presented, what they really wanted and how to encourage them from their real needs was unique to each of them.
E.g., give Happy the space to disagree while affirming his right to think differently; Acknowledge Doc as an expert so he doesn’t have to keep proving himself and dominating the group. Engage Grumpy’s cooperation by inviting him to help you manage with some small task that gives him a little power.
My upbringing with my family helped mold me into a responsive leader in other ways too. For example, Mom brought me in to the family grocery store when I was eleven. That was the only way I’d got to spend time with her. I watched her wait on people. She used to say, “Never ask ‘anything else.’ If people can say ‘no’ they will. But if you ask them, ‘what else’ they have to think about it. They’re more likely to order some thing else if you do.” As you probably know, that technique also works in an interviewing situation. It’s one of the first tricks I teach moderator and coaching students in our Sharpen the Focus courses and Fast Track Coach Certification. Asking “what else” elicits more response. “Anything else?” is a good segue to another topic, since almost all will say ‘no.’
Mom was also an arm chair detective, loving to figure out story plots before they were revealed, untangling complicated math problems and solving all my friends’ love difficulties for them.
She was very creative, always inventing new recipes for tantalizing morsels to sell in the store. The joy for her was in the problem solving.
Conducting and teaching how to do qualitative research and coaching, particularly with a psychological slant, is my passion. Similar to my mother, I’ve spent my career inventing new approaches. Instead of recipes for delicious foods, I’ve worked to develop techniques that help elicit “juicy,” underlying emotional issues that have to do with how people make decisions as well as how they grow. In addition, to being very useful to clients, the journey is always exciting and often surprising. It’s amazing that after 30 years of research, I continue to learn something new with each project. For example, from a series of groups in the not too distant past - did you know that kids now call pimples on their back, bacne? Makes sense, but it was news to me.
The Livingston Group is particularly known for pioneering the use of psychological and projective techniques into qualitative research and Coaching. I’ve borrowed ideas from art, music, anthropology, sociology as well as psychology.
And, I’m an animal lover. My Shih Tzu dog Stewie accompanied me to many facilities, most of the time hanging out in the backroom with my clients who loved him. However, there have been times when he became a Group Therapy Dog.
When he was a three month old puppy, he attended a brainstorming session for Del Labs. All of the dozen or so attendees made a fuss over him before the session started. Stewie was comfortably playing or sleeping in a little penned in area in the corner of the room. During one intense period, a client who was pacing while thinking through a problem went over to the pen, picked up the puppy and brought him back to his seat. He stroked the dog while beginning to write. Another woman looked up from her work, thought about it for a second, and said, “please pass the dog.” Stewie was passed from person to person throughout the session, relaxing people and adding to their sense of comfort and creativity.
Stewie worked his way into a number of research projects, including one on ones with physicians. In feedback from clients and respondents we’ve consistently heard that the presence of the dog was inspiring and helped people feel more at ease to say what they really thought and felt. “It made me believe that you were really interested in what I had to say.” Commented a physician. “Even though I know I should say what I really think, sometimes I have found myself saying what I thought the interviewer was looking for. Having Stewie here made me think I could relax and be myself; that you had no agenda.”
Although I’ve studied psychology and group dynamics for years, my early excitement was inspired by Mom and the Doctor who called me Snow White. I write this to honor my dear mother and celebrate the 30th anniversary of Snow White Theory.
Want to learn more about Snow White Theory of Group Dynamics. Contact me for a free template on recognizing the 7 characters and what techniques to use to draw them out in a group conversation. By the way, these exercises are useful even when you’re a participant and not the group leader.
DrSharonLivingston@gmail.com 201 614 4439
To your Success