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How do you get groups out of their comfort zone without resistance?

“I have a presentation coming up for a large group of 270. I am invited to take them out of their comfort zone”, a colleague told me recently. This was a corporate audience, with 50 minutes for a session aimed at ‘loosening patterns and habits of being’. The theme of the conference was to re-imagine, and my colleague planned to use movement and verbal-based improvisation activities, which she expected to be ‘uncomfortable for some’. 

‘I would be interested in hearing from your experience any tips/best practice on what I could do or say in such a short time frame that could redirect any resistance? Also any tips on managing the movement of large groups?’

I wrote back, ‘It sounds like a fun session. You’re right, 270 people is quite a lot to move around, unless you have a big open space and they are in the mood for moving around. So confine movement to either the overt point of an activity or to an inevitable side-effect of something else that matters – e.g. finding a new partner/group to fulfill certain criteria’. In other words, don’t make movement an issue if it’s not adding value to do so.

I continued, ‘Resistance is a sign that a facilitator has communicated poorly. Aim to have them excited and curious about reconnecting with their creativity, coming up with valuable new ideas, seeing the possibilities of imagination. One nice example of an activity that usually achieves all of the above, even in a tight theatre setting, is a whole room paper snowball fight. Each participant writes a tip/prompt/relevant message on a piece of paper; they crush their papers into a ball, then the whole room erupts into a brief paper-snowball fight. Signal a pause in which everyone picks up a ball and unfolds it. They compare notes with a neighbour to see what new idea arises connected to the topic question’.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. But it strikes me on further reflection that there is something odd about this question of wanting to get people out of their comfort zones. I mean we can achieve that by doing anything whatsoever that makes them uncomfortable. There’s neither skill nor merit in that. What type and degree of discomfort is wanted – and in order to accomplish what? And suppose we could do that ultimate thing without needing to make anyone uncomfortable, wouldn’t that be preferable?

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