Systematically Cultivate Bonding in Orientation Sessions or Retreats

College admins who run freshman orientation have the same goal as conference organizers who bring together 300 strangers for a long weekend retreat: facilitate rapid bonding among all the new faces.

The way to do this is not to rely on cheesy ice breakers. Instead, I think you want to cultivate connections by highlighting the common bonds among different sets of people. If two people both happen to be from the same small town in Wisconsin, they should each be made aware and linked up at the conference or in the first week of school.

I've seen three best practices.

First, all attendees or new students should complete a detailed questionnaire before arriving. In it they should list their interests, favorite books, movies, heroes, and what they do on Sunday afternoons when they have nothing to do. Solicit tons of information from each person. Then, on the first day of the conference or school, distribute a print facebook of each person which lists their answers to the questionnaire. (Eventvue does this for conference organizers.)

Second, since group dynamics can distort people's behavior and result in inaccurate first impressions, emphasize one-on-one conversation in those crucial early bonding moments. The best way to do this might be speed dating — five minute conversations with every other person.

Third, make everyone wear nametags the entire conference or first week of school. Enforce this rule. Knowing someone's name is the first step to getting to know the person.

Bottom Line: If you're running a conference or orientation session, don't leave networking and bonding to chance. Cultivate it!

11 comments on “Systematically Cultivate Bonding in Orientation Sessions or Retreats
  • When I went to Erotica LA a lot of girls were wearing name tag pasties. It was the most brilliant – and in some cases nauseating – networking tactic I’ve ever seen.

  • This post felt pretty convoluted to me.

    You say: “don’t leave networking and bonding to chance. Cultivate it!” Yet you also totally disregard ‘cheesy icebreakers’.

    Did you think for a moment that perhaps that can be the purpose of icebreakers? A fun way to get people bonding and interacting with everyone – not just the people from ‘Wisconsin’.

    Also you totally missed getting people to step out of their comfort zone. Icebreakers (usually) force people to get out of their comfort zone and do something they normally wouldn’t, this may feel cheesy or nerve wracking but once someone does it anyway they will appreciate you for helping them do something they normally wouldn’t and will be rewarded with a sense of achievement.

    How often do you run your own conferences and / or training sessions? And who was this post aimed at? It seems pretty basic advice for beginners and not the amount of value you usually add for anyone else.

  • It’s obvious that the PURPOSE of ice breakers is to facilitate bonding. But I am saying it fails at this goal. I can’t remember the last time “two truths and a lie” accomplished anything, to name just one cheesy common ice breaker.

    Your point about getting people to step outside one’s comfort zone I also disagree with. This is the very logic behind most ice breakers, and yet in my experience I don’t find it very useful. It’s more important for two people to both know they share a key interest or hometown or whatever — not for someone to step outside their comfort zone. ” once someone does it anyway they will appreciate you for helping them do something they normally wouldn’t and will be rewarded with a sense of achievement” – this has not been my experience at all.

  • Ben:

    The most effective “bonding” exercise was one I attended in my b-school. The seniors organise a session which is supposedly aimed at helping the n00bs get familiar with the dominant pedagogy which is the case study method. They emphasise the benefits of the session and add for good measure, that it is group work and graded that brings out the Type A behaviour full force. After the n00bs spend the entire weekend working on stuff they are set, they find out it is an elaborate hoax. But by then the people has got to know one another, with names and dorm room numbers and backgrounds. Over 15 years on, I am still in touch with each one of my MBA batchmates. No need to book a hotel room in at least 75 or so cities in the world either. There’s always a bed and hot dinner on offer.

    Forced bonding alright but what an idea, eh?

  • I just took a class in which mixing with fellow students. At the very beginning, we were told to get out of our seats, go over to another table, and introduce ourselves to someone. On the second day, we were told to devise a question (based on the course material) and ask another student. Then the other student asked his/her own question.

  • Interesting take, but I have some differences on all three of your points.

    On completing a shared questionnaire: Pitzer College does this, and it’s mildly helpful, but what I’ve noticed is that people who fill these out tend to pick the book/song/movie of the moment, thereby leading to “false positives”. Also, I think people naturally do this kind of thing anyway- “what’s your favorite movie of all time?” is second only to “where are you from?” as a getting-to-know-you question during Welcome Week. I also think for some people it can be off-putting if they feel like people are forming opinions of them before they even meet. A quick game of ‘desert island’ does the trick and is less invasive. It’s technically and icebreaker but it’s not annoying, and it gives people and opportunity to start an organic conversation later rather than try to give a life summary.

    On ‘speed-dating’: that’s a fantastic idea, and I plan to use come this August (I’m a first-year mentor). It’s the type of thing that would encourage an introvert to put themselves out there a little more without feeling pressured to perform in front of a group.

    Nametags: a good idea, but impossible to ‘enforce’ especially among college students. After the first day, people who wear nametags when others don’t are perceived as needier than others; while people who don’t are perceived as unapproachable. Better just to foster opportunities for people to be in smaller groups and remember names organically. If you can’t remember somebody’s name, you can facebook them later anyway.

    You can read my top ten list of things not to do during Welcome Week here:

  • so to facilitate bonding people need to find out key interest’s or hometowns that they share…

    but ‘in your experience’ icebreakers fail at this goal and you don’t find them very useful.

    Instead you recommend an activity like ‘speed dating’, where everyone can have a 5 minute conversation to achieve these goals.

    I’ve got nothing against icebreakers and over 3 years facilitation has led me to the conclusion that they are indeed, a very useful tool for bonding. Incidentally, your ‘speed dating’ activity recommendation IS an icebreaker. It also serves the purpose (regular speed daters not withstanding) to take people out of their comfort zone.

    I’m sure you’re very convicted in your argument but I find your rebuttals lacking substance:

    “I can’t remember the last time “two truths and a lie” accomplished anything”.

    ” and yet in my experience I don’t find it very useful”

    ” this has not been my experience at all.”

  • I’m not “very convicted” (sic) in my views. I’m open minded to being off base as always… Speed dating provides a one on one opportunity to quickly trade facts about each other’s life and see if there’s a connection to talk about later. Group stuff doesn’t allow this. Ice breakers in general probably depend on the group and goal – I think the higher level the people involved (ie CEOs etc) the less engaged they’re going to be, the quicker they’re going to dismiss stuff as “cheesy,” etc…

  • The Leadershape Institute which brings together campus leaders for a weekend trip has an interesting methodology.

    I was fortunate enough to attend one here in Georgia. We were divided into families guided by a mentor. A large amount of time was spent in these families reviewing the activities and lessons of the day while getting to know fairly intimate details about those in our family. I believe the purpose of this family structure was to serve as both a support structure and utility for networking outside the family.

  • Nice, thought-provoking post. I know it was only an example, but I got a chuckle out of this:

    “If two people both happen to be from the same small town in Wisconsin, they should each be made aware and linked up at the conference or in the first week of school.”

    Two 18 year olds from the same small town already know they’re going to the same school, have known it for months, grew up together, and are probably looking forward to making new friends. Doesn’t apply to conferences though, that would be cool.

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