Seven openings

Almost everyone’s arrived.  Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting.  A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters.  It’s time to get started.

Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.

Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering.  They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done.  People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration.  Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.

Here are seven ways to open, engage and connect:

  1. Engage people as they arrive   

We heard about this from the wonderful Tips for Trainers.  It’s a simple way to bring people mentally into the workshop or meeting before it’s even started.  Prepare two flip charts and have them in the area where people are arriving, or near the door to the meeting room.  Each flip chart has a different heading, for example: a question I want to explore with others today; one thing I’m looking forward to today.  As you welcome each person, ask them to put a post-it comment on the chart.  You’ll probably find that people start chatting about what they’re writing, and reading each other’s comments.

A variation is to write a statement on a large sheet that relates to the meeting purpose.  Below it is a spectrum where people can signal their level of agreement by placing a dot.  It gets everyone thinking, and you can refer back to it in the discussions.

  1.  A warm welcome – ‘what brings us here’

Starting with presence and purpose sets the tone of the meeting. It’s the first step in creating a hospitable space where people can do their best work together, and falls to the host of the meeting (if that isn’t you).  A few words, combined perhaps with a personal story connecting to the purpose of the event is a great way to start and only need take a few minutes.

  1. Meet and greet – informal networking

Invite everyone to get up and greet every person in the room, in three minutes.  It’s simple, direct, quick and generates lots of energy!  Follow it with the next activity, named Mad Tea by our colleagues at Liberating Structures: 

  • Find somebody you haven’t met before and introduce yourself, giving your name and organisation or project, if appropriate.
  • Respond to one or two questions provided by the facilitator
  • After 2-3 minutes – on a bell, or a beep, or a clap of the hands – go and find someone else.
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Getting to know you

Examples of questions are: ‘What are you bringing that you can share with this group’; ‘what is one thing you’re hoping to achieve or learn’? Questions can also be more targeted.  For example, we asked a large gathering of sanitation specialists in Hanoi, ‘What are you doing in your work that could contribute to resolving the global sanitation problem?’ Questions like these can trigger conversations about mutual interests and possibly lead to suggestions to meet further.  Two or three rounds expose the range of ideas in the room.

You need to agree the physical set up in advance.  For the meeting of 125 people in Hanoi, where nobody knew everybody but everybody knew some of the people there, we had to negotiate firmly with the hotel staff to have chairs in two’s and three’s, randomly, around the room.  This was the best configuration for that room and that group for informal networking. ‘But it’s not tidy!’ they protested, as they rearranged the chairs into rows for the second and third time.

  1. Appreciative check-in’s

Start an online or face-to-face meeting or small group session with an opening round.  Ask each person to introduce themselves (if this is the first time for them to meet), and share one thing about themselves others may not know, and one thing they want from the meeting.  There are many variations, according to the purpose and subject matter, but the point is to bring everyone’s voice into the room very quickly, in a way that’s relevant and puts people at their ease.  

  1.  Introduce yourself – briefly, or you’ll burn your fingers!

Asking people to introduce themselves in this way may be the simplest thing to do.  If groups are larger than 10 or so, the classic problem is that people may find it hard to be brief, and each successive speaker tends to speak longer.  If there are 15 participants and each person takes 3 minutes, that’s 45 minutes, and people are probably getting restless.

Ednah Karamagi introduced a fun ploy: give everybody a match from a box of matches. Each person lights their match and can then speak for as long as it burns. Inevitably the first speakers suffer, but by the end people have worked out how to eke out the match, bending this way and that, so that they can speak for as long as possible.

  1.  Finding your own people – using tagging

Classify and labeling online content like blogs became an increasingly important activity as social media began its rapid growth. ‘Tagging’ was the term people used for labeling online, so when we began training Development people in how to use social media we developed a ‘tagging’ exercise to use as an opener.

In a meeting you can ask participants to give themselves a tag, using a post-it note. In a Stories of Change workshop in Addis Ababa for the CARIAA program that we co-facilitated with Blane Harvey, we asked participants to identify themselves in three ways, noting the answer on post-it notes – tagging themselves, in other words:

  • Something you’re passionate about outside professional life
  • A skill or experience you are most looking for in Stories of Change
  • The most valuable skill or experience you are bringing for Stories of Change

There are three rounds, one for each of the above.  Participants mingle and find people with the same or similar tags, and form clusters. Each cluster, and those who haven’t formed a cluster, is asked to explain why they are clustered in that way.  They could also make a pitch to attract others to join their cluster.  It’s fun and energising and is a practical way for people to find out who and what is in the space.

  1.  Spectrogram lines

Spectrogram lines are a great way for people to learn in an energizing and enjoyable way who and what is in the room  The facilitator lays a long piece of marking tape down a section of the room, or in some other way establishes there is a line. Then participants hear a series of statements in succession which will divide opinion in the room. For example:

  • The SDGs are going to fundamentally transform the sanitation sector
  • Maize can be sustainably intensified
  • Yield gaps are primarily due to non-technical factors
  • I have 30 pairs of shoes

After the first statement, people choose whether and by how much they agree. One end of the line represents ‘I fully agree’ (100%) and the other end ‘I completely disagree’ (0%). People place themselves along the line according to their level of agreement.  They could do this silently, or ask each other why they think they are at a particular spot, so as to gauge where to place themselves. After people have arranged themselves, the facilitator interviews individuals at either end and at the middle, asking them to explain to the group why they chose their position.

Other questions or statements are declared, and the process repeats. Through the movement, the conversations between the participants, and the interviews, participants share a lot of knowledge about each other and the subject matter.

Join us at the next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November to find out more about openings and more besides!

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