Facilitation and exercises for creativity and presence

I run different types of workshops with clients and at events and have built up a number of different activities that invite the participants to have a novel moment and then reflect on it to reveal something potentially profound. I’ve written my current favorites, but welcome suggestions, additions, requests for clarification, and so on.

1. The Superpower Intro

  • When starting out a group session, everyone introduces themselves in turn, with their name and their super-power.
  • It’s best not to over-constrain what constitutes a super-power. Some will speak about the thing that brings the group together (e.g., work), some will talk about their personal lives, and so on.

I nicked this exercise from Marissa Louie who used it as a way to kick-off a talk. But you can use this to go in a number of different directions. In my workshops on soft skills, I’ve adopted this warm-up because it often happens that the kinds of things people share as their super-powers are indeed soft skills. It can be a positive way to see all the things that people are good at (actually great at!). Christina Wodtke does a variation where people, in pairs, ask each other for stories about an experience or accomplishment they are proud of, and then tell that person what they think their super-power is.

2. Doodling

There are many ways to doodle, but here’s what I’ve been doing as part of my 100 doodles in 100 days project

  • Get a pen and piece of paper.
  • Close your eyes – or look away – and move the pen. Make a scrawl or a squiggle. Don’t try to make anything happen, just get some marks down.
  • Now look at what you’ve got and try to create something out of it. It can be abstract. Or it might look like something. For fun, you might want to draw eyes and a mouth, animal parts (see Dave Gray’s amazing Squiggle Birds exercise).
  • Don’t take too long, but try to think about when the doodle is done.

This isn’t about producing something good, artistic, or even visually pleasing. It’s about taking an activity that usually is very deliberate, where we are focused on the outcome and trying to do it differently. You can reflect on how it felt to “draw” this way and how you feel about your output.

3. Storytelling Circle

This is an improv game played with 6 – 8 people.

  • Get in a circle. If you are doing the game in a larger group, you can make a semi-circle so that the everyone is facing out to the rest of the group.
  • As with many improv games, get three suggestions from the audience. You might ask for a proper name, the name of a place, a household object, something you might find in a purse, etc.
  • The people in the circle are to tell a story (incorporating those elements) one word a time. Go around and around until you are done!
  • Move quickly and aim to have the sentences the group creates come out almost as quickly as if one person was speaking.
  • One trick is for everyone to be ready to start a new sentence. The almost-default of a run-on sentence isn’t much fun to do or to watch.
  • Don’t throw all your story elements in at once, and try to look for the ending to the story.

I like to do a couple of rounds of this until everyone has gone and then debrief about the experience. What was it like to do this? What were you thinking when you were playing? What did you observe when you were watching?

There are some common responses when I debrief this activity, but I also hear something new every time.

I teach an entire workshop about improv (video, slides). And just for fun, you can see some hilarious improv anti-patterns in this clip.

4. It’s going to be okay

  • Working with a partner, share something you are worried about. It can be something big or something small.
  • The partner says, as authentically as possible “It’s going to be okay.
  • The first person acknowledges that yes, it is.
  • Then switch roles and repeat the exercise.
  • As a group, talk about what happened.

This simple exercise uncovers a lot of complex individual stuff. My objective is to just give people a chance to play with the notion of “it’s going to be okay” which is maybe not that comfortable for everyone. But worry takes you away from the present moment, into the future when some unwanted consequence may occur. And I hope that by playing with it, and seeing how it does or doesn’t work for the individual, people may have some power to try this themselves.

When I’ve led a group through this exercise, some people made it a silly activity (“I’m worried about vampires”), others felt that the response wasn’t sufficient to mollify the concerns they had just given voice to and reported feeling worse, others felt that just expressing the worry gave them some relief, others felt like the exchange was calming. I have been challenged by being asked “Well, what if it’s not going to be okay, like what if it’s cancer?” Of course, the process of coming to grips with death does indeed include acceptance. Oliver Sacks wrote a terrific and touching essay about his own impending death from cancer.

5. Designer is Present

  • People get into pairs and move so that they are sitting directly across from each other. Their knees shouldn’t be touching but they should be close.
  • Without staring, each pair looks quietly at each other for 60 seconds.
  • Without debriefing or discussing, everyone stands up and moves around for a moment to “shake it off” and then sits down to resume for an additional 60 seconds.
  • As a group, debrief the experience.

This activity comes from the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a show at MoMA where as part of a retrospective of her career she performed a new piece where she sat silently facing individual museum-goers, all day, day after day, for several months. An excellent documentary about the show is reviewed here.

I have since learned that you can find versions of this exercise in dance and in couples therapy.

You can also read more about presence in an article I co-wrote about noticing. For more on this workshop, watch the video and check out the slides.

6. Reframing Bad ideas

  • Each person is given two sticky notes.
  • On the first sticky note, write or draw the worst idea for a product or service. Something that is dangerous, immoral, bad for business. I often give the example of “candy for breakfast.”
  • Pass the sticky note to someone else. It doesn’t have to be a direct swap, as long as everyone has someone else’s bad idea.
  • On the second sticky note, design the circumstances whereby the bad idea you’ve received becomes a good idea. I’ll offer the scenario where colony collapse disorder has disrupted the food supply enough that children aren’t getting enough sugar through regular sources and breakfast candy is the result.
  • Have people share the idea they were given and the way they successfully reframed it.

I stole this exercise from Mathew Lincez. I use it in combination with “It’s going to be okay” to illustrate our capacity for reframing and as part of a workshop on creativity called the Power of Bad Ideas (article, slides, video).

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