Physical telephone

Recently, we did some exciting work with James and Athena Pond, whose Transitions Global has done amazing work around the world helping teen victims of sex trafficking rebuild their lives. In light of the seriousness of their mission, the following warm-up exercise that we used might seem silly or trivial, but we found it to be as effective with this group as with others whose day-to-day work has very different stakes.

We wanted a simple but impactful experience that would quickly and stickily underscore obstacles to passing along a message consistently, even a simple one. Our choice: a game of “Physical Telephone,” where, instead of players transmitting a spoken message down a line of people, players are charged with passing along a set of gestures.

The setup:
1. Have players stand in a line facing front, as if they are waiting at an ATM.
2. Explain that you or a colleague will go to the back of the line, tap the end person on the shoulder, and when they turn around you’ll show them three distinct (non-offensive!) physical gestures.
3. Their job – without talking, or repeating the gestures – is to turn and tap the next person in line, and repeat what they saw. When they’re done, they can peel out of the line and watch.
4. This continues down the line until the gestures reach the person at the front of the line.
5. Then, have the person at the front of the line and the person who initiated the three gestures (again, you or a colleague) face the group and simultaneously perform your respective gestures. Get ready to be surprised.

Here’s a peek at the Transitions Global group:

We use this frequently when we work with groups on communication dynamics, and it’s always good for both a laugh and a learning moment. Comments range from, “I was so worried I would mess it up that I wasn’t concentrating when I watched their moves,” to “I thought that wrinkly eyebrow thing at the end was one of his gestures!” All of these debriefing comments can be fairly revealing.

• Groups of 6+ work best; for groups over 20, try having half be observers, then switch.
• For the three physical motions, mix in different sides of the body, high and low, etc. Avoid motions that people already have strong identification with, like swinging a bat or miming a sneeze.
• Effective debrief questions: “What did you see happen?” “Why does that happen?” “I gave you some constraints (no talking, can’t repeat gestures, etc.). Without those constraints, if your goal had been to pass the gestures down the line as accurately as possible, what strategies could you have used?”
• This shouldn’t be the first thing you do, right out of the blocks, because participants often experience self-induced pressure to perform vs. collaboration that builds group connection. We use it after the group is already warmed up and comfortable with each other.

Other ideas – what else do you do to create quick, fun discoveries about what gets in the way of effective communication?