Warm ups, comfort zones, and corporate raiders

In the process of planning yesterday’s Steiner school meeting I worked with the existing  core group and they in turn shared the plan with a couple of other folk involved in the meeting. One or two revisions came back to me. Nothing unusual there except that, if I’m honest, one of them frustrated me slightly. There was  request to cut out the 10 minute warm up altogether. The reason given? That icebreakers sounded too corporate and might leave people feeling uncomfortable.

For me the warm up was essential – this was a public meeting one aim of which was to leave people, many of whom would never have met each other before, feeling able to volunteer to get involved in an ambitious project. Rather than making people uncomfortable, my thinking was that some form of warming up was necessary to create enough comfort for later conversations to be meaningful, and for people to begin to get a sense of themselves as part of a community.

It was also a meeting about a model of education that has concepts such as creativity and learning through experience and movement at its heart. It seemed appropriate to draw on that within the meeting.

OK, so some of you are reading and simultaneously reflecting on icebreaker experiences that would have sent you running a mile feeling decidedly less comfortable than when you arrived. Of course there are some icebreakers , many icebreakers, out there that would make all but the most outgoing drama student cringe and look for excuses to leave. I could happily live without having to pretend to be an animal waking up in the jungle, making appropriate movements and sounds, ever again (if that’s your favourite icebreaker, my apologies, but please take a long hard look at it before using it with a group of strangers….).

My personal preference is for gentle activities that encourage people to have spoken to at least one other person before the time is up and to have begun to reflect on the purpose of the meeting. If they involve movement, so much the better – and by movement I usually mean some sort of sedate mingling not a round of It’s a Knockout. Of course some groups can tolerate, and want, more game-playing, more physical challenge. So be it.

To cut a warm up altogether, however tempting, is a false economy. To my mind it enhances the quality of all that follows. However, in this instance it’s exactly what we did. And it serves as a very useful reminder that when working with a new group, network, or client there’s a need to warm them up to what we do as a facilitators and to our personal style. These folk don’t know me well enough simply to take my word for it. They have their own experience of warm ups in one half of the scale and the word of a relative stranger in the other. So, note to self, more to be done to break the ice before and during the agenda planning stage!

As for warm ups as too corporate…. facilitation is facilitation, and if it works for activist groups it’s going to work for corporate teams too. Tailored to context, of course. Who did the first icebreaker, corporate team or community group? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, and it doesn’t matter. I regularly raid more ‘corporate’ facilitation toolboxes such as MindTools for ideas, take what works for the groups I’m working with and discard the rest.


6 thoughts on “Warm ups, comfort zones, and corporate raiders

  1. I get very very nervous when meeting organisers try to say there’s “no time” for a warm up. I’ve encountered such attitudes with individuals and groups who are mostly interested in controlling/dominating meetings, and spewing forth their party line. They are not interested in the people attending the meeting being active and creative. They want them to listen, absorb and obey – classic “ego-fodder.”

    Please note, I’m NOT saying the Steiner school lot were motivated by that, but it is, as you say, such a false economy.

    PS I would walk out if the warm up was “waking up in the jungle.” That’s an embarrassment.

    PPS The evidence shows that in surgery teams a nurse/assistant is far more likely to speak up if there is an error about to be committed by a surgeon if there has been something as simple as a ‘name-go-round’ at the outset. It’s called “activation phenomenon” – it’s in Atul Gawande’s excellent “The Checklist Manifesto”.

  2. Love the example of the surgery team, Dwight!

    I also agree that some kind of ‘warming up’ and ‘settling in’ is a must – even if it is just giving sufficient time to ‘introductions’ with a simple: “name and why I’m here today”.

    I have blogged a bit about some favourite icebreakers: http://penny-walker.co.uk/blog/2010/09/breaking-the-ice/

    (NB the choice of picture in the article was not mine – not a meeting set-up I’d recommend, although all those boxes of tissues are intriguing!)

    • Thanks Penny – in fact human bingo was one of the ones on my list of suggestions, customised (like the example you’ve linked to from your blog) with Steiner-related questions.

      As for the tissues? I know I’d soon be weeping in a meeting set up like that……

  3. You may also appreciate this which I saw in Dyslexia magazine some years ago –

    Ice-makers by Alison Binney

    Games designed to create tension amongst groups of strangers

    Tell everyone your name. Everyone else then takes it in turn to think of an amusing nickname for you.

    Introduce your neighbour to the group, explaining why you think they shouldn’t really be here.

    Write your current bank balance on a slip of paper. Place it in a hat. Take it in turns to pull out a bank balance and try to guess whose is whose.

    Tell the group your first name and an adjective beginning with the same letter which describes your worst quality. e.g. My name is Andrew and I’m arrogant.

    Blindfold a partner. Direct them around an obstacle course using hand gestures only.

    Think of one thing you don’t like about the person sitting on your right. Whisper it to the person on your left. See if they agree with you.

    Find someone in the room with the secret personal habit as you.

    Arrange yourselves in a line in order of sex appeal; most attractive at one end, least attractive at the other end.

    Take it in turns to mime your most embarassing moment ever in the middle of the circle. Everyone else has to guess what happened.

    Take off your right shoe and put it in a pile in the middle of the room. Take someone else’s shoe from the pile. Bury it outside. See who can find their own shoe first.

    Find someone who:
    Is wearing a wig
    Has had plastic surgery
    Has piles
    Is afraid of meeting new people.

    Tell the group two true things about yourself and one lie. Using non-verbal signals. See if anyone can spot the lie.

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