Blog > A games-free zone?

January 28, 2014

A couple of things got me thinking this week (and that’s no mean feat during the summer holidays – much easier to just forget about everything and enjoy the beach).

The first was a request from a facilitator for ideas about working with a group on one of those super hot Melbourne days where it’s even too hot for the beach, the air sucks the moisture from you as soon as you step outside, and even the smallest exertion is best avoided. You get the picture. It’s hot. Bloody hot. Too hot for a workshop, that’s for sure.

There was a bunch of suggestions around ice cubes, balloons, water fights and so forth. Even I was wincing as I imagined a bunch of academics in a city meeting room playing with ice and balloons. Seemed more appropriate for a kids’ party to me.

I know. This is the champion of games speaking. Stay with me.

The other comment was from another facilitator who was referring to his workshop ‘happy’ sheets (there’s a whole other post on happy sheets – maybe another day) and the apparently often-written comment “Thank goodness we didn’t have to play any silly games.”

Fingers poised to write a response, I stopped, and thought about the hot day, ice cubes scenario.

AnnoyedManAnd I thought about this chap, who turns up to my workshops in different guises (sometimes he’s even a woman). He’s not happy. He’s probably been asked to play a ‘silly’ game.

It’s a big responsibility being a facilitator. Okay, not as big as some other roles. But for a short time – a few hours, a couple of days – facilitators have a lot of influence over a group. We decide what people do, how they interact, when they break. We set up a space, we introduce activities, we question, we cajole, we interpret what’s going on, we play ‘silly’ games. Some of us do, anyway.

What is the point of ‘silly’ games, especially in a facilitated workshop?

Workshops are not business as usual, otherwise you wouldn’t be devoting the time, people and resources. Something’s at stake. That something is often a shift – in how people work, how they relate, their understanding, their knowledge, skills, perceptions. It’s about movement, not reinforcing what is.

Appropriate games and activities are a part of the mix. Appropriate. Not games for the sake of games (though some of the best times I’ve had with others in recent years have been simply playing games together – maybe a topic for yet another post!) In the hands of a skilled facilitator games can enliven and enlighten – particularly behaviours, attitudes, and the hidden undercurrents that, just like an ocean rip, can drag you under, take you off course, dump you somewhere you didn’t want to be, or kill your energy and enthusiasm.

Lots of times games are not necessary. Yet time and again, I’m seeing groups playing a different game – with me, and with each other. They are doing and saying what’s expected, using language to obsfucate rather than clarify, staying abstract and safe – and all the while sounding very grown up. In fact, they’re staying safe. They are not stepping to the edge of their knowledge or awareness, they are not taking risks (even when they espouse that they are a real risk-taking company) nor are they willing to be vulnerable. Oh, there’s all sorts of reasons why – and that’s part of a facilitator’s role – to unearth some of these undercurrents, to be compassionate and also nudge people just a little towards new thinking, new behaviours, new ideas. Otherwise, it’s business as usual in a different location. a change of scenery, but nothing else changes.

I have found nothing that works better than a game to reveal people’s behaviours and attitudes. And if it reveals it to me, you can be sure it reveals it to others as well. Many of us have become experts in our heads – we can say what’s needed, we can justify our position. A well-chosen game can break through all of that and reveal different perspectives and new insights. The skill of the facilitator is knowing, when, where and what games to use, and for what purpose. What the game reveals will be different depending on each individual. I’ve often introduced a game thinking it will illustrate, for example, collaboration. And the participants discover something else entirely. I’m constantly surprised.

So the comment “Thank goodness we didn’t play any silly games” can probably be taken at face value. Maybe people really do hate playing games. Or maybe it means “Thank goodness I wasn’t stretched.”

As a facilitator I could stay safe too. I could use some tried and true processes that generate plenty of outputs. And oftentimes this is just what’s needed. For whatever reason, the group is not up for the challenge. Yet when I do challenge myself, or the group, when I take the risk to try a game, or create an activity that I think might be useful, here and now, it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I fall, or I fail. Sometimes. At least there’s some movement, some creativity, and some innovation. And that’s what workshops are all about – getting unstuck.


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