As a youth worker, trainer and facilitator I use games….a lot. Not just as ‘ice-breakers’ and energisers but as a means to facilitate learning, reflection and application. (For clarity I’m not referring to computer games although they have their value as well, but group games and exercises). I love games and play, and believe them to be the most powerful way to engage and develop individuals and groups, to such an extent that I co-founded The Game Trainers.
I often get asked how I deal with a certain dynamic in a group, often teenagers, that don’t want to play games and may feel that such childlike frivolity would cause them embarrassment, possibly even undermining their stature and position amongst their peers. In fact I’ve had this question, or variations of it, so often I thought it was about time I addressed it in writing.
The first thing I ask in response when someone poses this question is, “how do you know they don’t want to play?” More often than not this stumps the questioner, forcing them to reflect on their own assumptions. I often hear back,‘they’re just not the type’, or ‘I just know they won’t’.
In my 20 years experience of facilitating learning and development through games I’ve found it’s extraordinarily rare for people to simply refuse to participate in activities, even games, within a session. They may not be that enthusiastic about it, but they will tend to comply, even the surliest of young person. If the activity proves to be engaging enough, the purpose of the game is made clear, with specific learning outcomes identified, supported by opportunities to reflect and embed that learning, then they are unlikely to complain of the technique, even if it’s not their favoured approach.
If however you do genuinely encounter an individual or group that is adamant not to participate, or you have real concerns about the likelihood that they will want to join in, well never fear, I have developed an (almost) full proof 5-step approach.
1. Try to understand what is driving their lack of willingness to participate
It’s important to understand where these individual’s intransigence is coming from. More often than not it is manifested through fear. They may have worked hard to cultivate a certain persona of authority and seriousness. Why should they take the risk of embarrassing themselves and damaging their hard fought reputation? OK, so that’s a lot of assumptions to make, the truth is you can’t really know why someone refuses to take part, and although making assumptions may not be useful it’s also almost impossible not to do. They may just be in a bad mood, be extremely shy, have issues with someone else in the room, or perhaps they’re creating a power struggle with you.
I find however that if I’m to have any assumptions about these people, it’s much more helpful to choose the generous ones. This gives me something positive to work with, and avoids the often fallen into trap of trying to ‘jolly them along’, or embarrassing them for non-participation, entering into that power struggle with them.
2. Be flexible and respond to the group, take small manageable steps
I firmly believe that games and group activities are the most powerful way to learn, but it’s equally vital that you don’t attempt to take the group were they’re not ready to go.
Nobody likes to be patronised, and if you are sitting there with 15 young people you’re yet to build a rapport with and immediately try to cajole them in to what on the surface may seem like a kids party game, you can be certain that patronised will be what they feel. This will lead to much awkward chair shuffling, clock watching and mobile phone fiddling, and that’s it, not only will they immediately lose their faith in you, but getting them to benefit from any further games will be an uphill struggle.
So, feel the group, sense the energy and dynamic. If the group aren’t ready for a running around game or challenging psycho-drama activity, start with something much less threatening. Such as a stationary, talking or word play game, possibly a simple pairs or small group exercise. Facilitate feedback from everyone in the group allowing everyone’s voice to be heard from very early on.
Collaborative games that bring the group together are great for early parts of the workshops; they create commonality, camaraderie and comfort. When you’re ready for more competitive play don’t rush it, give time for the ‘teams’ to form, to create their identity and begin to norm.
3). Manage expectations
Set out the culture of the session early and be clear what’s expected of participants to maximise their involvement and learning.
If you can communicate with the participants prior to the session all the better, let it be known that they need to come willing to try something new and prepared to join in. You can set the tenor in subtle ways, such as suggesting comfortable clothing and using appropriate language and tone in your communication to help them to appreciate the informality of the group work session.
Early in the workshop explain what they can and can’t expect from the group work. Discuss with them what they think it means to step out of their comfort zone, to take (small) risks, and what the benefits might be.
4). Model the behaviour
Never ever, ever ask the young people to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself and do first. Make a bit of a ‘fool’ of yourself, showing that a little discomfiture is OK, model being good humoured and laugh along with any embarrassment you feel.
Whenever I explain a game that requires movement, actions or sounds I force myself to model the activities first, making it as big as possible. I’m embarrassed, everyone laughs, I laugh, and the atmosphere immediately becomes more relaxed and communal. Seize on this opportunity quickly; get everyone to do the actions and sounds together, do it again! Once everyone’s acted like a dancing wizard, or whatever it is you’re asking off them, everything else will seem simple.
5). Create openness and honesty
If there’s resistance in the room, bring it out into the open. Conflict is a good thing when dealt with honestly and openly; it can create many opportunities, self-realisations and growth, but conflict that is avoided or ignored will fester and cultivate. You may have your own approaches but a favourite technique I often use to harness an environment of openness and honesty early on is the 4P’s exercise.
This activity is a great opener for any group workshop, but is particularly relevant when you’re going to be asking the participants to step out of their comfort zone and to peel back their hard exterior.
Place four flipchart sheets around the room, each has one word written on it:
- Protester (actively doesn’t want to join in)
- Prisoner (feels forced to join in)
- Passenger (is along for the ride)
- Participant (willingly joining in)
Briefly create some shared understanding of what each term means, and state that these four categories represent everyone in this room.
Identify two hypothetical scenarios and ask them to stand next to where they would be, for example, going on a roller-coaster or spending a week on a long-boat, or anything you can think of that may divide the group. Once they’re in position, ask them why they’re standing where they are, and discuss what would need to change for them to be able to move towards becoming a ‘participant’, try to get them to focus as much as possible on internalised change.
On the third occasion, the scenario is ‘being in this workshop’. It’s vital to encourage frankness, especially when discussing what change would support them to move towards becoming a ‘participant’. Following the discussion ask them if they are willing to shelve the stories they’re holding onto about themselves and their expectations of the workshop and to move, at least for the moment, into becoming a ‘participant’, and what that would look like and mean for the group. I’ve facilitated this activity dozens of time and I’ve never experienced anyone remaining in the prisoner or protester position, but should that happen then they will need to consider whether they should be part of the group work at all.
If you’re successful in maintaining an honest culture throughout the workshop, whenever anyone feels any discomfort with what you’re asking them to do, then they should be able to discuss it openly with you and the group and to explore possible solutions.
This openness goes both ways, so if you running an activity you’re not sure of, or are concerned that something might not work out quite as planned, share that with the group, ask for the support that you need. An experiential or games-based workshop should never be about ‘you’ and ‘them’, it should always be about ‘us’ – working together to create shared learning outcomes.
So there you have at, an ‘infallible’ 5-step guide to successfully engaging even the most cynical young person in play and learning through games:
- Understand what’s driving their lack of participation
- Be flexible and respond to the group
- Manage expectations
- Model behaviour
- Create openness and honesty
Good luck, let me know how it goes and if and how I can support you further in your game-based group work exploits.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” Plato