For the last 20 years, I was busy thinking I was rather clever, because I had quickly and correctly figured out the pattern behind a game that I learned in my late 20s. Recently, I’ve recalled the game and realized that I only saw the puzzle. I had completely missed a very important lesson.
How to play the game:
The game is called, “I’ve got a hat”, and you play it in a group of people. It even works on Zoom meetings.
First, let the group know that when they figure out the pattern, to keep the solution to themselves, so more people have the chance to have the excitement of reaching that “ah ha” moment. (People will often yell out the solution when they get it.) While miming the actions and watching the invisible hat, the facilitator says, “I’ve got a hat. I’m going to take my hat and throw it in the air. It’s going to spin three times.”
Then take a moment to look around the group. Let your eyes rest on people as you scan, and then ask, “Who’s head did it land on?” Now say nothing else and wait.
Eventually (or immediately) someone will say something and guesses will come. Someone might suggest that it landed on someone’s head three to the right or left of you, maybe depending on which way you looked around the group before asking the question. Someone might guess it landed on the head of someone your eyes paused on at some point. When a guess comes, say nothing, maybe make a noncommittal shrug. Take your time and wait to see if other guesses come in or discussion comes up.
After a bit, say whose head it landed on, without explanation, and play the game again, choosing random numbers of spins each time. I have fun by leading them in the wrong direction to increase difficulty, and I get more obvious if the group is having trouble. If it’s taking a long time for someone to get it, use can bigger numbers, like 14,312,672 spins to show that the number is irrelevant, or I’ll say whose head it landed on with less delay after it lands.
Eventually, someone will think they have figured out the pattern. Reach out and pass them your invisible hat. They are now the facilitator, but if they ever say the wrong person has the hat then you know they just happened to guess right, but don’t know the secret. You can say, “Sorry, that person doesn’t have that hat”, and you can take back the hat and start over. Just keep repeating this until everyone appears to have actually figured out why it lands on the heads it lands on… or people are frustrated and getting upset! (That can happen.)
Solution and learnings: (SPOILER ALERT!)
The solution is that the hat lands on the head of whoever speaks first!
The lessons that I missed are about normative group dynamics and systemic problems with speaking up in society.
For example, I appear to be a straight white male. (I say appear as I’m biracial and don’t self-identify as white, but I have white privilege… a whole other post to write!) This may make me more likely to speak up than many women or many people of colour. I’m also someone who is always willing to volunteer first, contribute, share, and lead, so my voice can often be heard much more than some others in a group.
What I’ve learned is that I and others like me have the ability to create opportunities for others to speak, simply by waiting and creating space. Sometimes it takes a full minute of silence or more for others to be ready to talk. I’ve learned that sometimes people aren’t talking because they don’t want to, and sometimes it’s because they have completely given up on having a voice. It could be any reason in between.
I’m now much more careful about what and when I share, trying to make sure what I share is of great value, and usually only after others have had ample space. I keep finding that when I hold back, and those voices that get heard less speak up, I learn more and get more value out of group dynamics than had I spoken up more.
Here are some questions you might explore if you play the game:
Who tends to break the silence first? Whose voices are heard most? Who tends to take time to think, observe, reflect, and by doing so is not heard? What differentiates the people who speak up quicker from the ones who speak up slower or not at all? Why do some people or groups speak up more or less? What needs are being met by the different strategies? What cultural norms and systemic conditioning or expectations are in play? What does it mean for the group as a whole that some voices are heard more than others? What does it mean for those who are not heard? What strategies can be used to welcome more voices to speak? What value and learnings come up when those who speak create space for those who don’t speak?
What other questions to explore come up from this for you? If you play the game, I’d appreciate it if you came back and shared in the comments how it was received and what discussions and learnings came up as a result.