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.