The Playful Art of Hosting
Taking playfulness serious in event facilitation is essential
Hosting groups is an art and not a serious one. Seriousness is a disease that kills. Seriousness is the root of fundamentalism, war, harsh laws, tunnel vision and other social blindness’s. You may wonder: Yes, but the cause, the objectives, the goal, how can we reach it, if we’re not serious? Well, consider this: great athletes never win because of seriousness; they win because of commitment and being true. Try to park a car seriously. It’s idiocy, you park attentively and carefully. How are you serious about your relationship? Not with seriousness, but with being honest, vulnerability and attentiveness. There’s a thin but very important distinction between being serious and being true. When becoming serious I always feel some muscles tense up. Being true feels as listening to my heart and how it responds to what happens. It tells me how to move on.
Being true means you stay open for what happens and relate to that. A football player has to stay open for what everyone around him does. He can never fix his ideas. Nor can a facilitator of groups. I worked with many groups that were playful and had great ideas until someone, most commonly, a guy says: “Okay, now let’s be serious. What do we really want.” He actually says: “All this play was nice, but that was warm up. Now, let’s step back into the boundaries of our professional masks and not come up with things that will really challenge the way we do things around here, especially me.” From playful researching possibilities we’ve gone back in one step to shallow seriousness. All next steps will stay within boundaries of what we already know. And as Einstein said: “You can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it.”
Hosting think tank on the future on the Netherlands
The 12th of March 2010 I hosted, together with a small team, a afternoon conference called “Laboratory on the Future of the Netherlands” (laboratorium van de toekomst, de Baak), organized by the ‘Great Place to Live’ Network, which was initiated by Noor Bongers. The core idea of this network was: live the future as if it is already here. At the conference we had dialogue sessions about the Netherlands in 2022. And then to my surprise I ran, quite recently, several times into people who had been there and spoke about that one afternoon as a key moment in current projects, or remembrance. This while the outcome of the event hadn’t been a clear, directed outcome. It was just playing with ideas and presenting them to each other. Yet it had triggered people into new choices, networks, options, that 7 years later still echo on. How did that happen?
I think the key ingredient was the playful set up. Playfulness is one very important key. People who play are more flexible and imaginative in their thinking then serious people. Play, however should not be forced upon. You invite to it. It has to be present in the planning, the room, the hosting and in the activities. Why? In such events balance between content and creating chemistry between people is essential. Too much content and everyone may agrees, but few to no connections are being made. Too much working towards chemistry and people may like each other, but have nothing to build on. We did many little things to play both sides at the same time.
What did we do to invite play?
We provoked them with some posters about the future that are, for many people, yet hard to behold. We had toys on tables, or elements that were a bit strange, to get people out of their ‘normal’. And we started with fun icebreakers, silly, not so silly games with everyone to loosen them up. We often misjudge the importance of such a moment. If we are all silly with another for a moment, then people soften up. Their professional masks fall a bit off and they become more human. They finally are less serious and more willing to try something new. Such people can play with each other. I have time and time again experienced how truly essential this can be to get a fire among and between te people going. Also well chosen icebreakers are a great way to set expected attitudes and game rules through experience. Like: In our event everyone may ask any question. In our event we don’t blow ideas out of the water, we rather dig deeper to find where it is coming from or build on top of it. You can ‘train’ such principles through play. Etc. Finally we also did away with a A-status expert or authority keynote to open the event. Noor Bongers said a little about her why, that was it. It helped everyone to become their own authority, trust that they all had hold of some ideas and solutions. That we weren’t there to follow instructions from higher up. We were here to explore for ourselves and with each other.
The importance of playfulness
The result of this preparation and introduction to the sessions helped a lot. We playfully explored new ideas. We challenged people to more playful thinking. The meeting was committed, there was dialogue and co-creativity. What wasn’t there was deadly debates like ‘I am right, thus you are wrong’, or ‘You are wrong, because we believe x and therefor your y doesn’t work.’ even though there where many different political colors. People showed commitment, were attentive, constructive and bonded. This event thus went beyond obliged professional networking, beyond deeper understanding, beyond political agenda’s. And that beyond was, I think, exactly why it’s light still lingers 7 years later.
Or as John Huizinga concluded in his work Homo Ludens: “All cultural change comes from people playing with what is and what is possible. “ Hosting events is about getting people in that mood.