Life can be complex, confusing and overwhelming, so I love hearing about ways to make sense of people’s social behavior (including my own). David Kantor’s model of the four roles that people play as they interact with others is one of my favorites.
A psychologist who specializes in understanding systems and communications, Kantor* came up with a framework to use in thinking about how people deal with each other and with life itself. I often think about Kantor’s model as I examine my relationships with family members, friends and clients (both students and parents).
Kantor observed that individuals take one of four positions as they interact with others. They can be movers, followers, opposers or bystanders. Very simply, movers initiate action, followers support another’s action, opposers challenge action and bystanders reflect on action.
This is not like a horoscope or a magazine quiz. The idea is not for a person to say, “I’m a ________.” Ideally, a person learns to be comfortable in all four positions and to be flexible enough to move among them as appropriate for each situation that arises.
I have occasionally explained this model to students (generally ages 12 and up) when I see that their behavior is not allowing them to get what they want – good grades, parental approval, close friends, etc. The framework gives us a vocabulary for talking about their situation and figuring out how the way they are behaving affects the outcomes they get. (Younger kids may not be able to understand the model and see how it applies to them, but it’s useful for parents to think about as they watch their children grow and develop.)
Successful students take on the mover role with enthusiasm when it comes to academics. They also need to be followers at times. We educators and parents hope they do so only when they have good role models to follow: trusted teachers, coaches, student leaders and peers. It is crucial that they also be able to oppose, to speak up when peers act in ways that are inappropriate or destructive, or to express divergent opinions in class discussions. The bystander position is called for in situations like listening to a teacher clarify a point for a classmate: the bystanding student is not a part of the conversation so they stay out of it, but their reflection on what’s heard may contribute to their understanding of the topic being discussed. Even if it doesn’t, allowing others to have the teacher’s attention is a positive (and courteous) way of being a bystander.
Adolescents often see the world in absolute terms. They classify themselves and those around them as permanently playing one role or another — sometimes because they do! In high school, my daughter would say things like, “Well, of course he gets good grades, he’s [insert name of another student].” However, problems arise when students get stuck, find a comfort zone in one or two positions and feel unable to move freely into the others.
As tutors, we commonly see students “get stuck” in the bystander role. They desperately want to “be in the driver’s seat” — sometimes in a literal way, as getting a driver’s license is usually a high priority — but they are reluctant or unsure of how to take control of their lives when it comes to academics. Similar problems arise for students who are good at following others’ leads, but not at initiating action. The challenge of finding one’s own voice and strength can continue into adulthood.
Born movers, however, sometimes need to work just as hard to learn when and how to follow or bystand. If they don’t, to use the metaphor above, they become backseat drivers! And of course, parents and teachers all know the frustration of being around an adolescent who is stuck in the opposer role. The lucky ones know what a relief it is when it turns out to be a phase, not a lifestyle.
Using Kantor’s model as a way of understanding ourselves and helping children to do so is not meant to solve problems, but to clarify them. Learning to recognize and get beyond our instinctive tendencies is part of maturation. I’m still getting there. . . how about you?
*See http://www.davidkantortheory.com to find more about Kantor and his work.