Using Liberating Structures To Create A More Engaging Party
How Liberating Structures can even help make your parties more engaging and involving for everyone there.
Frequent readers know that I am a huge fan of Liberating Structures. They make it easy to create environments where everyone is heard and included — a rarity in most conversations. Although I use them primarily in my work, I am always looking for ways to use them elsewhere. So recently, I had the opportunity (together with Lisanne Lentink — my wife) to use them during a party with friends and family.
In this post, I share the string, an impression of what happened and my learning. And hopefully, encourage you to try something similar.
“Most parties tend to have a few dominant speakers; people that have no problem drawing attention or keep going on and on about something. That’s not very engaging for others.”
Parties — Not always so liberating
I like parties. But there are some things I noticed about most of the parties I go to, as well as the ones I’m hosting:
- The group usually breaks down into subgroups of people that already know each other. There tends to be little interaction between these groups;
- Conversations at parties tend to focus on the usual suspects, like work, children, movies, and vacations. It's not that these aren’t very interesting topics in their own right, but I sometimes end up having the same conversation over and over with different people. Can we do something else?
- Lisanne Lentink and I have many memories of great conversations with people we met at a party, never to see again. Everyone we talked to recognized this. There’s something memorable about striking up a great and personal conversation with a stranger;
- Most parties tend to have a few dominant speakers. People that have no problem drawing attention or keep going on and on about something. That’s not very engaging for others;
- For people that are more socially shy, it can be difficult to connect with new people. Especially when these people are surrounded by people they know well;
“Conversations at parties tend to focus on the usual suspects, like work, children, movies, and vacations. Can we do something else?”
In other words, I noticed that many parties ‘suffer’ from some of the same challenges we see with group conversations in work environments. Which is no surprise, really. But a good reason to see what happens if you use Liberating Structures in those environments.
What we did and the string we used
Before the party, we made sure that everyone was fully aware of what we intended to do. In the invitation, we emphasized that this was an evening for good conversations with different people. The party wasn’t a regular party, but more of an experiment to see if we could do something else (and maybe more valuable) with our time together. All in all, 16 people turned up.
After 30 minutes, I dang the Tingsha Bells, welcomed everyone and kicked-off the string. Here’s what we did:
- We kicked off with Back-to-Back, Face-to-Face — a priming activity — to let people rapidly meet different people and share some (natural) smiles. We’ve found this to be a great way to warm up a group of people and break-down the natural hesitation to walk up to someone you don’t know;
- We then introduced our purpose for the gathering and clarified that had a program prepared for about 90–120 minutes, after which the party would continue as a ‘regular’ party;
- We used B2B-Listening to let people pair up with one other person, standing back to back and with eyes closed, to listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana. We felt that this song was most likely to be known by everyone present and most likely to connect to memories and stories. People shared their experiences of the song with their partner and then listened to the song again, but through the ears of their partner;
- We continued with Appreciative Interviews. We asked people to pair up and share a story of a moment in their life when many things seemed possible. What did that moment look like? Who or what was part of it? People shared the story in pairs, then re-told the stories of their partners in groups of four while noticing patterns and similarities;
- Considering the invitation we used for the Appreciative Interview, we noticed how a lot of the moments that we talked about revolved around leaving your comfort zone. So we followed-up with Tiny Demons to explore the fears, doubts or worries that naturally flow from that. This was a moment where we relied more on drawing and making fun of your fears than actually having a conversation. But after the drawing, people shared what was comfortable to share with someone else;
- We rounded up with an Impromptu Networking and asked people to share in three changing pairs what they would like to take with them from the conversation they’d had;
The full string is available here (‘Birthday Party Christiaan & Lisanne’). As you can see, I made several changes as the evening progressed. We initially planned a Conversation Cafe. But with it being an evening, I noticed how the energy level made an Impromptu Networking more natural. The string took about 100 minutes to complete, after which the ‘regular’ party resumed.
“People really enjoyed the number of people they connected with over a really short timeframe.”
What we learned
Granted, using Liberating Structures for a party was a bit of a ‘social experiment’. To Lisanne Lentink and me, it felt like a good way to see if we could make the time people spent together more valuable and memorable. And we really wanted to give people the opportunity to connect with many others. This first attempt helped us learn several things:
- People really enjoyed the number of people they connected with over a really short timeframe. Almost everyone had the opportunity to connect with almost everyone else. People also noticed many similarities between themselves and others in terms of the stories they shared;
- Early on in the design, we decided that I would host the evening. This meant that I couldn’t participate. It also made me more of an observer, which felt a bit awkward. This wasn’t my intention, but we struggled to find another way to do this. Although groups that are familiar with Liberating Structures can self-facilitate really well, this group wasn’t familiar with them. Although it was an option to both participate and facilitate, I always struggle to be both fully engaged with the other person AND read the room and see what is happening in terms of energy and enjoyment. Next time, I would try to find more people to help with this. Or stick to only very basic structures;
- We did two group conversations with everyone present to wrap-up our biggest discoveries from the Appreciative Interviews and Impromptu Networking but noticed how that didn’t really add much. Next time, I wouldn’t do this anymore;
- We noticed how Appreciative Interviews in itself gave enough foundation for a great conversation. We could’ve easily spent the whole evening on this. So next time, I would go for fewer structures and spend more time on them;
- The structured nature of the interaction may feel a bit awkward or forced. We still need to play with the length of timeboxes and when to shift to other structures;
- It was important to be very clear about the intentions upfront. This is not something you can do without a fair warning. Not everyone is up for talking with complete strangers about potentially personal stuff;
- It was easy for people to make the conversations personal and deep, even though we were always careful to emphasize that people could make it as personal (or non-personal) as they wanted;
- We noticed how many people continued their conversations after the string completed. The variety of how people paired and grouped afterward was much more diverse than I am used to during parties;
“We noticed how many people continued their conversations after the string completed.”
Sure, when you’re a hammer everything becomes a nail. But I love how Liberating Structures create opportunities for truly connecting with someone else. And we really wanted to create an environment where that was possible for my closest friends. In that, we certainly succeeded. We also learned a lot about how to do this well. And I hope we encouraged you to try something similar. Let us know what you think in the comments!