Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Amazing Group of People: Have a Party, Play a (Social Learning) Game!

Last Friday night I went to a birthday party that a friend of mine threw for herself. It was a nice group size, 10 women, that she had drawn from various of her different social groups. Because of this diversity, everyone knew somebody, but no one knew everyone, except for her. So she decided to play a game, as a way to bring the group together and get conversation going.

At the beginning of the party, in front of the fireplace, we all sat together searching around for things to talk about with one another, work, school, family, our origins - the usual conversation suspects. Going on in parallel, as people came in, my friend would hand them a small piece of paper and a pen and asked them to write something about themselves that was interesting and that the others might not know about them, and give it back to her. The first reaction in almost every case was, but I haven’t done anything interesting! Stumped, people held on to those papers until the very last minute when they would finally write something down and hand it back.

My friend put all the papers aside as we started dinner, and indeed there was one conversation going at one end of the table about school, and another at the top of the table about another topic, and a few people like me in the middle trying to listen to both, but not quite managing to jump in. At that point, getting our attention, our hostess announced that we were going to play our game. She told people that she was going to read one of the statements and that the table would have to guess who had done what. People laughed nervously at first, apologetically restating that they had simply not been able to think of anything very interesting. Then we started, my friend began reading the statements one at a time….and... within minutes we were in an uproar, bursting with laughter, incredulous with disbelief!

This amazing group of people had been all over the world and done remarkable things – someone was being quietly paid to go by train every Friday up to Gstaad one of the world’s poshest ski resorts to teach flute lessons to a couple of students living there (we never found out who they were), one person had competed nationally in Latin Dance competitions and danced in stage shows, another person had a long list of movie stars that she had bumped into (some literally) in New York City and great stories to go along with these, someone else had worked as a forensic DNA research specialist in Costa Rica and mesmerized us with the story of CSI-like drug-related murder that she had worked on and helped solve.

What a completely different conversation we had after that! No more super small talk, there was no going back.

With that small game, not only was the conversation brought together, giving us a shared experience, it also produced an opportunity for us to connect with each person individually, making finding further conversations topics a breeze. We also quickly went to much deeper quality connections, and more memorable ones. I will probably never forget these things I learned about these women, and when I see them next I will be able to reconnect with them in a much different way thanks to this relationship building shortcut. It was a service to social learning too, knowing more about what people do and can do, if anyone asks me for a good music teacher, I know where to send them.

This game also created lots of good energy, and that relaxed people who did not know one another. It helped us share things about ourselves that we are proud of, but that would have never come up in a normal cocktail party conversations (like taking blood samples from dismembered corpses), and gave people a real sense of accomplishment; we all left feeling much more “amazing” than when we arrived. Remarkable what a little social learning exercise can do!

If you want to do it yourself, here are the game instructions:

Materials: Squares of paper (1 per person – make sure they are all the same), pens, a bowl to put them in.

Time: 3-4 minutes per person playing.

Game steps:

  1. As people walk in give them a slip of pepole and ask them individually to write down one thing about themselves that is interesting, and that people in the room may not know about themselves. Don’t give them any examples (they won’t really need them), but you can ask them to think about their past, their home or work life, etc. Tell them NOT to write their name on the paper.

  2. Collect the papers and fold them over; put them in a bowl or hat.

  3. During dinner, or when everyone can listen and see you, announce the game and pull the first paper out of the bowl. Tell the person who wrote it not to announce themselves until someone has guessed, or the group is stumped.

  4. Read the first paper, and start the guessing! When the person has finally been guessed, ask them to talk a little about their experience, ask about context, or for a short story (this is where the good stuff comes) and let the group focus on that person for a time before going on to the next paper.

  5. People will naturally keep track of how many they guessed correctly – if you want you can have a small prize for the person who got the most correct.

Variation: In a workshop setting I use this game just after lunch or on Day 2 or 3, as on the first day if people really don’t know one another at all, they will not be able to guess. If people do know one another somewhat, you can move the game up in the agenda. With a larger group, I mix up and number the cards, and then at the start of the game, I ask people to take out a piece of paper and number it from 1 to 15 (the number of people playing), and I read through all the papers first with no out-loud guessing, simply asking people to write down their guesses. Once I have completed one reading, I go back and read them again in the same order (thus the need for numbering!) and this time, we guess and then move into the wonderful sharing and storytelling as people get to tell more about what they can do and know.

Whether at a birthday dinner or in a workshop, you just never know what a gold mine of experience, stories and knowledge you have with you in the room, until you ask, and then let the evening be naturally taken over to learning about your Amazing Group of People.