If I am in charge of an event, say a training, or as I prefer to call them, learning opportunities, I usually engineer the opening 20–30 minutes to create the maximal emotional resonance between myself and participants and between participants and each other. Read the post on names, which talks about the importance of learning names. Here’s how I like to open an event:
7:45–8 Learn names & practice them
8–8:05 Say a short welcome message, set expectations that I will learn & use people’s names
8:05–8:10 Ask people to stand up and move into a single file line based on some criteria like years of teaching experience, distance from this room to your birthplace, or something like that. It’s usually designed to cross the line into vulnerability, however, participants can easily see that it’s not going to be a very risky activity because they can facilitate finding their place by asking others for their criteria: “Where we you born?” or “How many years teaching?” However, the same question will be tossed back at them, but it’s set up to be a fair exchange. Five minutes is too much time to get this step done. Take 60–120 seconds. Just keep prompting them, “Single file line.”
8:10–8:11 — Meet one end of the line and ask the end person to follow you, say their name, “Jessica, follow me,” then add the next person, “Brad, follow Jessica,” then add the next person, “Bryan, follow Brad.” You build a sense of connection and community by using others’ names in connection with each other. Have that end of the line follow you down the line, so the line snakes back on itself, until you have the line folded or folding in half. Have the person following you shake hands with the person on the opposite end of the line and say, “Shake hands with your partner.” Tell the next person to do the same. I move back down to the other end, pointing at each set of partners and asking them to shake hands and introduce themselves
8:11–8:15 — Stand at one end of the “communication line and make sure you see two parallel lines of people facing each other. I say, “Tell a story about a time related to…” and then I connect to the criteria used for the sequence of the single file line. “Tell a story about how you started teaching or an experience from when you started.” “Tell a story about your birthplace.” “Make sure you each get a chance to share.” Curiosity is high and stakes are low; there is little cognitive demand here. People are generally primed to be successful.
8:20 — Establish an attention-getting signal; more useful the bigger the group and the longer the line. I label the sides of the line, “This side is Mountain partners, and this side is Beach partners.” Or “This side is Chips, and this side is Salsa.” It doesn’t matter, but I generally try to imply value on both sides and use a bit of humor, or at least, strangeness. “Now, you’ll each get to answer a question, taking turns and using active listening techniques. Active listening looks like smiling, nodding, eye contact, using non-verbal signals to encourage them to continue, but you are not allowed to interrupt or ask questions.” If we have more than a half-day together, I’ll say, “Take a look at the norms on the slide, choose one norm and tell a story about when you experienced that norm, or its opposite, in your life.” If we have less time together, I’ll ask an open-ended question related to their life and some aspect of the topic for the session.
8:25 — After both sides get a chance to experience active listening, I ask them to extend their hands — and getting the timing right can be very tricky here — I wait a beat — look their partner in the eye — I wait a beat — and repeat after me — I wait a beat — “If it wasn’t for you,” — they repeat the phrase — “I’d be the best looking person here” — they repeat the phrase and burst into laughter.
8:26 — I play high-energy music and ask them to take their seats. In 20–30 minutes, I’ve learned all the names, created partner connections with emotional resonance through which they feel heard, engineered an emotional peak (the laughter), and everyone is primed for what’s next.
These are the steps I follow; they are my go-to protocol for starting right. I’ll discuss the reasons behind all the steps elsewhere.