By Alyn Ware
I am visiting a school in rural New Zealand and am with a group of 15 students outside on the playing field. I have a bag of balls at my side.
“Who here knows how to juggle a couple of balls?” I ask, tossing two balls into the air as I speak. A few hands go up.
“How about three balls?” I query as I perform a simple three-ball pattern. A couple of hands remain.
“Well, today I am going to teach you how to juggle eight balls at once.” Now they think I am joking. “It’s too difficult to do alone. I can only juggle four by myself. But together we can juggle eight! It’s called group juggling. Let’s do it.”
So in a circle we begin by throwing one ball from person to person until everyone has received (caught) the ball from one person and thrown it to another. We then throw the ball around the circle in the same order. Once we have established the order in which the ball travels from person to person, we can then get a second ball going around the circle after the first–and then a third, a fourth, a fifth, etc.
Each person is merely receiving balls thrown to them in succession by one person and then throwing them to another–but the effect of many balls traveling through the air at the same time is amazing. We do indeed manage to get eight balls in the air. The feeling of joint accomplishment is wonderful and there are huge smiles all around.
This is one of the many games we play as part of peace education in New Zealand schools to reinforce messages about working together and to build cooperation skills.
But I have found that the games are not just suitable for teaching school-children–they can also be useful in building trust, understanding and cooperation at the international level. I work in the field of international disarmament and am often in workshops with ambassadors or other officials from opposing sides in conflicts–such as Russians and Americans on the nuclear weapons issue, or Indians and Pakistanis over the Kashmir-Jammu conflict.
Once I was in a five-day workshop with officials from eight nuclear weapon states, and we had introduced the idea of a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. There was a lot of skepticism from the officials. They feared that some of the other countries might not abolish all their nuclear weapons but would hide some of them. And the officials did not trust that the others would not attack them if they were “defense-less.”
I thus felt that these officials needed more experience in being “defense-less” but having to trust the others. I led them in a game of Circle Fall. This is where one person stands straight with arms at their sides in the middle of a small circle of people. The people in the circle have their hands up to jointly take the weight of the person in the middle as s/he leans over. As the person in the middle becomes more confident that the others won’t drop her/him, s/he can fall further into their hands as s/he is passed around the circle.
Students in New Zealand play a cooperative game
As these officials played the game, their mood definitely lightened up. In our group we had a very large and very stern-looking Russian general who had been silent during the discussions. He had no intention of playing this game–perhaps he thought it was stupid. Perhaps he did not feel comfortable enough with others in the group to play. Perhaps he did not trust that others would catch him. In any case he just stood back and watched.
However, as each of the others had a turn in the middle of the circle and he saw how we all worked together to support the weight of the central person as s/he was passed around the circle, his mood also lightened–enough that at the end the other officials all turned to him and invited him into the middle of the circle. And indeed, as he let us bear his weight, a smile crept across his face for the first time in the five days.
Following the game, the officials were much more open to considering cooperative security arrangements and verification agreements to enable a disarmament process to occur while building international trust. The Russian general was amongst those who became most enthusiastic about possibilities for nuclear abolition.
Another time I was leading a group of officials from Asia–including from India and Pakistan–in a workshop on the Kashmir-Jammu conflict. There were about 11 areas of conflict between the Pakistanis and the Indians which were raised–some small issues, such as when cross-border bus and trade services could commence, and others much bigger and seemingly intractable.
At the beginning of the workshop the Pakistanis and Indians would not look at each other. They would each assert how they were the peaceful side with integrity but how the other side was for conflict and was always thwarting the possibilities for peace. And they were very emotional about the bigger issues.
I realized that the first step was to get them looking at each other in a nonconfrontational way, and the next step would be to get them to put aside the very tough emotionally charged issues for the time being and to build some success in dealing with smaller issues.
So I decided to lead them in group juggling. In this way the Indians and Pakistanis had to look at each other in order to receive and throw the ball–but it was looking at each other in a friendly way with no issues to deal with apart from whether they can throw and catch (something quite easy for two nations that love cricket). I had 11 balls at my side. The group managed to juggle eight of them. We thus built a friendly working relationship between the officials. More than that, we had a model on how to address the conflict. I noted that in the juggling we started with just one ball–and made it very easy. Thus, in the conflict I suggested we start with just one of the issues–the easiest. The Pakistanis and Indians agreed and managed to find some possibilities for addressing it. This success gave a basis for then addressing some of the other issues.
I also noted that there were 11 balls and that this time we had managed to juggle eight–a great achievement–but of course not all of the balls. Similarly in the conflict, we should not expect to solve all 11 issues at once. We should expect that some would need to be left until later when we have had more experience with implementing the easier issues to solve.
The workshop finished with a program of ideas for the issues agreed by all participants and with greater trust between the participants and a stronger confidence that these ideas could be implemented.
Alyn Ware is consultant at large for the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, outreach educator for the Aotearoa-New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies and global coordinator of the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament.