The Roles lens

The third lens we employ in our restorative dialogue framework is the Roles lens. This is wider in scope than the Identity conversation of the Difficult Conversations book.

The Roles lens is deliberately left without firm boundaries and encompasses those aspects of our interactions and behaviours that are shaped by our own preconceptions and those of others about what we do and why. We can use this lens to explore aspects of:

  • Formal roles: designations, and positions within a family, group, or institution
  • Informal roles: adopted in response to and interaction with a situation or circumstance
  • Group identity: affiliations to groups that we belong to or identify with
  • Personal identity: the values, beliefs and experiences that help shape our identity
  • Worldview: our individual interpretation of our cultural precepts


Contribution is a helpful way for us to start exploring roles.

At the simplest level contribution looks at how each person has contributed to a situation in what they said and did - the role they played. This information helps frame the situation as a sequence of events and elements that resulted in something going wrong between people. It does not seek to find who is at fault or to apportion blame or make judgement. It is not a court of law.

This examination starts from the point of view that both, or more, people have contributed to shaping the situation the way it is. This is a good way to help reshape a conversation that is looking to apportion blame, turning it into one that is more productive.

One aspect of contribution that can be easily overlooked is that doing nothing is a contribution. We often have a tendency to stay silent in fear of making things worse. In certain circumstances, this can be an appropriate thing to do, but where underlying tensions exist in a situation that matters, doing nothing can result in the gradual escalation of conflict or even in repeated flair-ups.

Useful ways to explore contribution are to consider:

  • How have we each contributed to the situation?
  • What could we have done differently to have prevented the situation arising in the first place?
  • At what stage did it become unavoidable?
  • What could you and I each have done differently once it started?
  • What will we do differently next time to avoid it happening again?

At a deeper level contribution helps us explore what lies behind what we did, or didn’t do. How did the elements listed above and shown in the diagram below influence us.

Each of these aspects overlap and share a number of elements, such as experiences, beliefs, values and assumptions. The elements inside the boundary we refer to as internal elements, things that are often hidden in our interactions with others. We may be able to guess at some of these internal elements during our interactions with others but, unless stated explicitly, these are only guesses. It helps to keep in mind that these internal elements influence and drive the external things we see more clearly: our attitudes, behaviours and actions.

These internal elements can be a source of disagreement and conflict, especially as they can be core to our sense of who we are. When we perceive that elements of our identity, such as our core values and beliefs are threatened, this can push“hot buttons” that provoke strong reactions.

The scope of this lens is both wide in scope and deeply personal. A restorative dialogue may therefore be restricted to selected elements, depending on circumstances.

Exploring these internal elements helps us to better understand what makes others tick, how they see themselves and the world. This can help us to more easily relate to why they do what they do, pointing to where we see things the same way, and where we differ. This exploration can help us build the Third Story and the opportunities for rebuilding relations.


Here we will restrict our interest to formal and informal roles and their interaction with our sense of self. The Roles lens provides the opportunity to incorporate other ways of looking at roles, such as the ones provided by Transactional Analysis.

Formal roles

Maybe the roles we can most easily identify with are the formal ones we fulfil at work and in our communities – often defined by role specifications. These specifications describe our duties, how we should behave and the attitudes we should exhibit. These expectations state the more formal aspects of a formal role. But this is not the only aspect that influences us in an organisation or community. Organisations have their own culture, values and practices that we are expected to fit in with and to follow.

From our understanding of feelings and needs, we can see how fulfilling a formal role can be a balancing act between various and possibly competing needs. Our working and community environments can satisfy our need for financial security, relatedness, status, certainty and self-development, or deny these very same needs. Exploring the alignment, or misalignment of our needs and the expectations of an organisation can provide insights into our attitudes, behaviours and actions in that environment.

Informal Roles

While formal roles are relatively straightforward to identify, informal roles are not as obvious. Informal roles can be assumed within any group of people. They are determined both by how the individuals in the group see themselves and the group as a whole, and how the other group members perceive the group and each person within that group.

Informal roles are usually connected to what the person does in and for the group. For example, there might be an ‘organiser’ (the person who does most of the organisation in the group), a ‘networker’ (the person who tends to know the group members better than most), a ‘peacemaker’ (the person who tries to maintain harmony in the group) and a ‘spokesperson’ (the person who tends to speak for the group).

More problematic patterns can evolve when one individual chooses to become a ‘persecutor’ of another person within a group, this person becoming ‘a victim’ , while a third becomes ‘a rescuer’.

While informal roles do not tend to have role specifications, they involve similar dynamics as formal roles; internal elements that influence attitudes, behaviours and actions. Informal roles may be more closely aligned to an individual’s gifts and tendencies as people may only take on these roles if they, and the group, consider an individual to be competent in a role.

Group Identity

Beyond the immediate groups we are part of where we adopt a formal or informal role, our identity is also based on the wider groups in society that we identify with. Group identity, or collective identity, relates to how individuals connect within broader communities, categories, practices, values and beliefs. We all identify with multiple groups, and groups within groups. These multiple groups form tiers, e.g.

  • Gender and sexuality
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality and regional identity
  • Political outlook
  • Religion
  • Occupation and profession
  • Sport and leisure affiliations

Others can be based on our social, political and ideological commitments and affiliations, e.g.

  • The environment
  • Globalisation
  • Capitalism / socialism
  • Freedom of speech, etc., etc. …

The collective identity of a group is often expressed through the group’s cultures and traditions. The origin of the group identity can be formed by forces both from within the group and from outside it. Ultimately, the collective identity is only crystallised when the group members’ accept that identity, whether this is positive or negative, conscious or unconscious.

Identifying with these groups says a lot about how we see ourselves. When we interact with others who identify with the same group there are expectations of attitudes, behaviours and actions based on the accepted norms of that group.

While the idea of identifying with numerous groups is relatively simple, the complexity of overlapping and tiered groups form a complex mix of influences, some of which may not be in alignment and can be a source of disagreement and conflict.

Individual Identity

The idea of self dates back to at least the Ancient Greeks and is based on reflection on ourselves. This simple idea was made famous by the psychologist William James who said the self is what happens when “I” reflects back upon “Me.”

There are many viewpoints we can adopt to reflect on our individual identity. One of these viewpoints is the psychological viewpoint. An overview of this viewpoint is provided by Dan P. McAdams in his article titled Self and Identity by on the NOBA website.

In the introduction to the article McAdams says;

Over the past 100 years, psychologists have approached the study of self (and the related concept of identity) in many different ways, but three central metaphors for the self repeatedly emerge. First, the self may be seen as a social actor, who enacts roles and displays traits by performing behaviours in the presence of others. Second, the self is a motivated agent, who acts upon inner desires and formulates goals, values, and plans to guide behaviour in the future. Third, the self eventually becomes an autobiographical author, too, who takes stock of life — past, present, and future — to create a story about who I am, how I came to be, and where my life may be going.


The ideas presented here come from an article titled Cultural and Worldview Frames by Michelle LeBaron on the Beyond Intractability website.

Identity and meaning are part of all of our lives. We generate meaning from our sense of identity.

Our cultures heavily influence our sense of identity and meaning. Our cultures tell us about who we are, who we seek to be, how we relate to others and what matters and why.

LeBaron’s article draws on the work of Mary Clark who states that cultures exist within larger structures called “worldviews”. In her book In Search of Human Nature, Mary Clark defines worldviews as “beliefs and assumptions by which an individual makes sense of experiences that are hidden deep within the language and traditions of the surrounding society.” These worldviews are communicated through myths, stories, narratives, metaphors and cautionary tales.

Worldviews shape, or help determine, values. Values change across cultures, since they have to do with what we consider most important, and the ways we see our relationships, the world, and ourselves.

Exploring worldviews we can help us understand what is important to individuals and groups, and where we see things similarly and differently.