I just finished facilitating a workshop with a Corporate Affairs team for a major pharmaceutical company as part of their semi-annual meeting. The team gathered to work on projects, update one another on the status of critical initiatives and develop strategy to move forward.
I kicked off the day with a 2-hour interactive workshop designed to engage the group, create open minds and build connections between the team. As always, I mixed magic, optical illusions and group activities to help the team uncover their unconscious assumptions and discover better ways to approach their work.
Since I was the guest facilitator, the event planners created a ‘magic theme’ for the entire event. The tables had magic props and stars, the time-keeper had a musical magic wand that she’d play if anyone went overtime, and the notepaper was in the form of blank-faced jumbo playing cards. This was certainly an innovative way to set the tone for a fun, yet productive meeting.
Before I was introduced, an organizer, Michelle, ran an ice-breaker activity. I’m usually not a fan of ice-breakers, mostly because they often feel uncomfortable and forced. But this was different. Michelle had created a jumbo deck of cards that each had a different question or fill-in-the-blank statement. Each person picked a ‘card’ and answered the question for the group. Some questions were:
- What’s something that you’d like to check off your bucket list?
- If you could have lunch with any person, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
- My high school nickname was _____.
- If you could Trade places with one person, who would it be? Why?
Before the meeting started, I chatted with Michelle about the game. To explain it, she randomly pulled out one of the cards and read it to me:
“I would like to max out my credit card at ______ because _________.”
My immediate reaction (after the initial thought that I don’t want to max out my credit card!) was to try think of a store that I might actually want to purchase from. Michelle came at it from a different angle. She said she’d go to the National Geographic Expeditions website and buy exotic travel packages. She would rather spend money on experience than product. That’s a refreshing approach in our culture of over-consumption.
But my mind was blown when we actually started the ice-breaker activity. Andy, the first participant, happened to pick that very same ‘max out my credit card’ question. After reading it out loud, he filled in the blanks with this statement:
“I would like to max out my credit card at $10,000 because if I don’t, my wife will beat me to it.”
What a very different way to read that sentence! I don’t know if he was just being intentionally clever or if he actually interpreted the words differently than Michelle and I had. Either way, it was a brilliant illustration of the fact that different people will derive different meaning from the written word.
After my session, I talked with Michelle about how Andy had taken a different approach to the question. Michelle said that it was funny how Andy had simply skipped the word “store” when he read the card. But when we went back and looked at the card, the word ‘store’ was never there. Her mind had actually created an incorrect memory to support her own interpretation!
In this case, there was no harm done. But imagine a situation in which the stakes are much higher. Small differences in interpretation or perspectives can produce very different experiences of the same situation.
This is why it’s so important to continually create and confirm shared understanding. Your team will waste less time on miscommunications and work more effectively. Many of the best communication skills are simple, yet powerful. Taking just a few moments to confirm that everyone has the same understanding of the matter at hand before moving forward can make the world of difference.