I create loops of emotional feedback in my opening 20–30 minutes based on 2 premises and 1 conclusion: 1) people know that one person in front of a group, no matter how caring or attentive he or she is, cannot connect to every person present, and 2) people are made to connect, therefore a traditional meeting or presentation format (one person in front of a group) implies that people will not have their needs met.
So, how do I use the loop principle to create an environment in which one person can effectively bring people together to attend to a topic, to explore a question, to fuel a discussion that has unexpected emotional resonance and synergy?
First, I establish nodes of contact with every person — within reason, of course, as groups with more than fifty people prove trickier almost expontentially to accomplish this task. One node is a handshake — physical contact. One node is using someone’s name. Nodes are points of physical and emotional contact. So, seed the pre-meeting moments with as many nodes as possible. Then, know with each passing minute after starting the whole group interaction, the power of those nodes fades.
Second, I engineer a structured partner talk activity, like a communication line, to provide an emotional loop between participants using carefully scripted active listening.
Let’s define a loop. When I look into your eyes and smile, if we are face to face, you start to smile almost without fail. Your brain recognizes my emotion and triggers a release of chemicals in that replicates the emotion you are seeing. It’s why we get sad during sad movies, for example. Those aren’t real sad events happening in a real person’s life, so why do we feel sad? You can argue that we cognitively understand and process the logic of the situation and interpret it as sad. That’s true, I believe. But more true is that we are perceiving sadness in the character’s countenance and we begin are affected by their affect; we loop with them. Read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence for more. He uses the term emotional contagion, which I deplore, because it doesn’t respect the fact that we are made this way and it’s a credit and a benefit to us as a social species.
Third, I interrupt the partner loops to give new instructions and — here’s where it gets crazy — when I do, some of the emotional loop that partners have been establishing comes to me as the facilitator. So, I have them talk again, and their bond gets stronger, and I interrupt again (after a proper turn answering a question) with instructions, and some of the strength of their emotional loop gets applied to be. (It happens in the opposite fashion as well — if someone sits at a table where people are complaining, interrupting and being foul, eventually that taints their view and experience of the facilitator).
Fourth, we do a closing handshake and joke, which not only introduces a humorous moment and decompresses anxiety or tension from being in face to face conversation, but also produces what I call an emotional peak — a burst of laughter and racousness that serves as a bachalanian and dionysian micro-moment. This peak, if timed and executed properly, is a tiny explosion in the brain which helps people step over a threshold into a new space, a space of vulnerability and learning. It’s communal laughter. There is momentary unity of the collective action associated with an emotional rawness that most of the partner conversations experienced. This is more than a state change. The partner activity — standing up and talking — is enough to produce a state change. This is priming the pump for an organic openness that can be used for deeper learning.
When the whole group returns to their seats and gives you their attention, you’ve fed people’s hunger for belonging and acceptance. And, they know this. When they give you their attention now, you’d better be ready, because they are ready to loop with you.