The joy of ponchos...
As facilitators, trainers or coaches, we sometimes know that we have made a positive difference to the people we have worked with. But we can also have positive effects which we have no idea about – what we do can have a ripple effect that can continue long after we have packed up and gone home.
At September’s European conference of the International Association of Facilitators I attended a session run by a lively fellow facilitator from Spain, Sonsoles Morales in the main lecture theatre. During her session, she shared a very effective ice-breaker that had a much bigger effect on me than I had expected.
I’m putting on my poncho…
Sonsoles invited the 25 or so people in her workshop to take a piece of flipchart paper each, and a marker pen. She then asked us to fold the flipchart paper in half, and position the paper so that the fold was at the top. Using the marker pen, we each then wrote something on the front of the flipchart that we felt best described ourselves. Some people chose to write keywords, some wrote sentences. I chose to draw some pictures that showed different parts of my life.
We then tore a half-moon-shaped hole in the top folded edge of the flipchart, creating our very own personalised ponchos.
My poncho from the front
Sonsoles led us outside into a garden area in bright autumn sunshine. I put on my poncho for the first time, wearing what I had written at the front, and wondered a little nervously what would come next.
What do you see?
Unexpectedly, Sonsoles asked us not to focus on what other people had written on the front of their ponchos, but instead to walk around the group, find people we did not know, and just look at them as people. We were then to walk behind them, and write briefly on the back of the poncho something that had struck us about the person we had just looked at – their physical appearance, or how they seemed to us as people. Sonsoles encouraged us to seek out people who did not have much written on their backs, and write a few words.
As the exercise went on, I became very curious about what other people had written on my back. I was also aware that I didn’t really know who in the group had written on my poncho – most of my attention was on the people I was looking at, rather than the people who were looking at me.
Once everyone had some comments on their ponchos, Sonsoles led us back inside. Only then were we allowed to remove the ponchos and turn them over to reveal what the strangers we had met thought about us.
Our survey said…
My poncho from the back
The words written on my back were very simple and straightforward, including:
- Nice Beard
- Library & books
- Beautiful eyes
- Love your drawing
I was surprised to find tears coming to my eyes as I read the words on the back of my poncho. A group of complete strangers had chosen to say nice things to me – someone they barely knew. I realised how rare it is for us to give or receive heartfelt, simple compliments to people we do not already know well.
For myself, I know it is much easier and safer for me to keep barriers up in a social situation where I am among people I don’t know, to manage my own anxiety. Opening up and being direct makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable – it raises the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or rejected. I can avoid that risk by playing safe, and not giving away what I am thinking or feeling. But having experienced how it feels to receive a heartfelt compliment has made me more willing to take the first step of paying those compliments to others.
The ripple effect
So what effect has this had on me?
One immediate effect was that I decided to give some positive feedback to a fellow facilitator at the conference who had deeply impressed me the previous day. And I have blogged about the conversation this led to, which has stayed with me since.
A second effect was a more general one – to make more of an effort to tell people what I like about them – strangers I talk to, friends and family, shop assistants, anyone I come into contact with. This effect has faded a bit since the conference – I’ve slipped back to my self-protecting old ways – but writing about it today has brought it back to the front of my mind.
Using this activity as an icebreaker
The effect the activity had on me was not one that Sonsoles could have predicted, and it will not have this effect on everyone. Nevertheless, one reason the activity works is because it does encourage people to be direct with each other in a way that builds trust. It would work particularly well for a group that does not know each other very well to start with, and could accelerate the process of getting to know each other.
Sonsoles also added a further step to the exercise, which I left out of the description above. After writing on each other’s backs, we walked around as a group again, but this time looking at the front of our colleagues’ ponchos for connections and similarities. Some of the other comments on the back of my poncho – about having two sons, and having a link to Scotland – were the result of similarities I found to other members of the group. This makes use of what is on the front of the poncho, and helps build connections between individuals in the group.