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Hi friends,

What technics do you use at the beginning of a learning event, to create a safe and human space? I want to learn from your experience.

There are some of my ideas. I tried them out (except for the animal question) and they work well.

Opening you heart

Number of participants: up to 20-25 participants

The facilitator distributes hearts to all participants and gives instructions. “This is the moment to open your heart.” On one side of the heart the person will write his/her dream or hope, on the other side his/her concern. The person can write or draw. People share their personal hopes/concerns, so it doesn’t have to be related to the learning event.

You can give 5-10 min for everyone to write or draw their dream and concern in life. Then, everyone shares. Optionally, you can ask people to share what they are proud of, in the back of the heart.

Why this exercise? It helps participants to connect as human beings and to let go of their status or title. It will be easy to use this exercise to introduce the session about our common humanity. It can also easily be linked with the SALT visit where we explore the dream and concerns of the visited communities.

Looking for strengths

Number of participants: up to 40 participants (works well with big groups)

People pair up with a person they do not know yet. Facilitators ask them to get to know each other just by chatting together for 5 min.
After 5 min, the facilitator explains that we will introduce our new friend by telling his/her name and the strengths we can see in him/her.

Why this exercise? This exercise shows that in a 5 min chat you can already identify many strengths in a person. This exercise easily leads to introducing SALT.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

Number of participants: up to 20 participants

The facilitator asks to participants: If you were an animal, what would you be? They can choose an animal because if his look, his attitude or what it symbolises. Ask people to explain why they chose this animal.

Why this exercise? Great to get to know each other on a human level, because it does not refer to our title or role in real life.

What’s the weather inside?

Number of participants: up to 20 participants

The facilitator asks all participants “What is the weather inside?”. You can ask a co-facilitator to start to show what we mean with this question.

Why this exercise? Great to do during a learning event, as an opening question in the morning. This allows you to understand and feel where the participants are, what they think and what issues remain. It gives the space to everyone to share what they want, to stay on a personal level or to stay more abstract.

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Last week, we started a meeting with HIVOS partners in Dakar with three questions
Who am I as a person?
My concerns as a person?
What I am most proud of in life?
We were organised in groups of three persons who did not know each other.
We took each question in sequence and shared with the group in sequence.
We gave enough time for real conversations to take place in the groups.
When Rysia asked at the end: "How did this feel?" The answers came:
"We did not realise we had so much in common"
"I now realise I have to start with myself"
"We are a family"
The atmosphere was created for learning and sharing...
Two pics that illustrate Jean-Louis' experience.

Some thoughts. Laurence, your point about giving people a choice about how 'personal' to get is really important - that's why I like your 'what is the weather inside' question so much, it gives people the choice.

Most of my facilitation work is with businesses, where 'personal' connecting isn't usually part of participants' expectations. I sometimes ask people to say 'something about yourself that not many people know', which is similar to your 'weather' question because people can choose how personal to be with their answers. One thing that works with this is to answer the question myself (first) and, where possible, to get a co-facilitator to answer it too. Then we can give one personal and one non-personal answer, which gives participants two different examples (and opens up the choice for them). It's also quite interesting that whenever I do this exercise, the group finds something that people have in common. Quite often we find that there are several musicians or poets in the room!

Another exercise I've taken part in is to divide a group up into pairs. Each pair takes it in turns to ask their partner 'who are you?' - several times for about 5 minutes. These are the only words allowed in the question. After 5 minutes people give examples to the whole group of the sort of answers they gave. Then the facilitator explains that each pair is going to repeat the exercise, but this time the answers can not include anything about work. Then the exercise is repeated again, this time without using any 'role labels' such as facilitator, artist or mother. You can do as many repeats as you like - removing options each time. Eventually the only answer is 'I'm a human being'. I think this would be a great exercise for the Constellation!

What does anyone else think?
Thank you Judy : very interesting experiences; I think that these exercises can be used in many different contexts.
In my work with organizations, I always love to start with a simple check-in. Everyone sits in a circle (preferably no tables in the middle) and after a short silence, everyone 'checks in' one by one, by answering a check-in question. The one I use most often is simply: Why are you here? That often brings out a lot of passion and inspiration, but even when it doesn't it still provides you with valuable information, for example if a lot of the participants actually don't know why they're here, or they were sent here by their boss (in an organizational context), that's something you will want to know as a facilitator so you can deal with it!

Another process that I've found works well, is having everyone stand up (get some energy moving!) in a circle. The facilitator then asks a series of questions, and for each question, those people who it applies to move into the middle of the circle so everyone can see, after which they move back and the facilitator asks the next question. The questions themselves depend upon the context, but they can be both informative and fun, e.g.:

- Who thinks this is kind of weird? (makes the feelings of uncomfortableness ok by making it explicit and sharing, so helps create safe space) (So for clarity: those who do feel this is weird, move into the middle of the circle. It might be just one or two persons, or it might be everyone. Then everyone moves back to stand in a circle again, and the next question is asked.)
- Who is from [city]? From [country]? (Helps people get a quick sense of the diversity in the room)
- Who is younger than 30? Between 30 and 40? 40 and 50? Older than 50? (again, diversity)
- Who hit the snooze button when the alarm went off this morning? (probably doesn't work everywhere, but it's fun and gives an idea of the kind of questions you could ask) Who hit it twice? Three or more times?
- Who is familiar with [theory/framework/organization]? (gives you a quick sense of their level of familiarity with a theory or topic)
I'm sure you can think of many other types of questions that apply to the context you're working in. The main point is, this process provides you with a way of quickly sharing a lot of information without needing to talk for a long time, and it's fun too (because of the moving around and the fun questions that you can add).

I got a lot of this from a workshop called the Art of Hosting, which is run throughout the world by beautiful people. It's all about how you host meaningful conversations to create change. You might want to take a look at the website if you don't know it already: Methods and processes used include Circle, Open Space Technology and World Café, which are powerful ways of working with groups of people to unleash inspiration and creativity for a common purpose. I've worked with these and other methods for a number of years now and am still amazed every time by what can happen when a group of people gets together and really connects from the heart!
A super simple exercise that a colleague uses when we do training is to go around and ask people to do introductions, though not just "My name is ____, I do ____ at work." Instead, he asks them to come up with an adjective to describe themselves from the same letter as their first name (we do writing/journalistic training). So, in this, I would say, "My name is Amber and I am Awesome!"

While this is again super-easy, it gets people laughing generally and helps to create a more personal atmosphere. At the last training we had in Malaysia several participants were called by their adjective names for the remainder of the training. We had a Dangerous Danny and a Sexy Susie. It was a lot of fun - and made it easy to remember their names.


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