From Strangers to Best Friends in 45 Minutes

In the midst of deep discussions...

In the midst of deep discussions...

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI), where I was able to experience the applications and nuances of this method for harnessing deliberate creativity, the Creative Problem Solving process. One amazing part of the conference is that anyone can propose 60 minute session called night flights to try out experimental workshops.

I decided to try out one I had only done once before, whose purpose is to forge strong relationships between strangers in just 45 minutes. Sounds incredible, right?

Did it work?

Yes, it actually worked.

At the beginning of the workshop, I asked people to find a person they didn’t know and who they thought they they might have the least in common with. All of them were at a 1 out of 7.

By the end of the workshop, we may not have created super best friends, but the difference in relationship closeness is astounding. On average, the participants reported moving from a 1 to a 5.3 out of 7 in relationship closeness.

During the session, there was a good mix of laughter, and about a third of the participants broke down into tears while talking with their partner who had been only a stranger an hour before.

Overall, participants were believers at the end. After the hour, I then tried to get them to go to the bar together as a group, but most of the room just stayed in their same spot and continued conversation with their partner for another hour.

What was interesting was that the pairs kept referring to their partner as Best Friend throughout CPSI and became really excited whenever they saw one another. What’s more is that the workshop was talked about all throughout the rest of the conference. I wish I could have captured this feedback.

As a first timer at this conference, I didn’t expect so much positive feedback that even the keynote speakers of the conference would seek me out to learn more about what I did in this workshop.

Implications on the Success of This Session

Okay, so we can bring strangers closer in 45 minutes. What does this mean in the larger context of the world?

In my role at the University of Virginia, my primary role is to enhance the individual and team connections between student entrepreneurs so they will be more successful long-term. This is because it has been shown that trust and familiarity are the foundational elements of a successful startup, even more importantly than functional diversity, skills, or knowledge ( Ruef et al., 2003). These latter three things are important, but not as important as trust and familiarity in the success of a team.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could reduce the barriers to trust and familiarity among those who are functionally diverse to create rockstar teams that will be able to pull from a variety of experiences to solve the greatest challenges facing humanity?

Trust and familiarity come from those who associate closely with each other, in groups that provide “closure” for enforcing social norms. Unfortunately, due to homophily (the tendency of people to associate with those that they perceive to be like themselves), those that we develop trust and familiarity with are typically similar to us in some way. Classmates, sports teammates, childhood friends, etc.

As a result, many co-founder teams may lack the essential element of functional diversity from the outset.

Where This Idea Came From

Last semester, I had experimented with teaching early student Engineering entrepreneurs the creative problem solving process as a way to discovery high quality opportunities that they would be excited to move forward with past the class.

Our previous research has indicated that the most important part of an entrepreneurial journey is the people that the entrepreneur surrounds themselves with (Zorychta & Pyle, 2017).

Using this as a framework, I knew that what was more valuable than any tool I could give them would be providing the space for cultivating meaningful relationships built on trust and familiarity between these highly engaged students. I searched for activities that might provide for this; I found tools to help with self-awareness, and tools for teambuilding, but I was lacking in an established activity to create powerful relationships between individuals.

I decided to develop a session based on an article in the New York Times that went viral in 2015. It was based upon a psychological study that laid out a method and showed results for forging strong relationships between those who were initially strangers. We had such success with it in my Creativity for Invention class, that I decided to use it for CPSI.

The Basic Outline of the Workshop

The format was pretty basic. It took so little facilitation that I actually ended up participating it in myself. As far as what I did, I dug past the NY Times article that made this concept viral, and looked into the actual published paper of the psych study and copied their Methods section as my facilitation guide.

Essentially, it is three sets of questions that get more in-depth. For each set, you allot fifteen minutes. Partners take turns asking each other the same questions, moving down the list. The person asking the particular question first alternates with each question, so there is an equality and not a prime interviewer. Then, there is a final step in which pairs of participants share prolonged, unbreaking eye contact for five minutes.

Impromptu Changes to the Facilitation Plan

From this basic outline, I did a lot of experimentation in my facilitation according to what the energy of the room was and when I saw opportunities to make a more impactful experience. I will give three examples.

For instance, to choose partners, I did not randomly assign them. I had planned to ask them to find a stranger in the room with whom they believed they had the least in common. Then, in the moment, I thought that it might be most impactful for them to lock eyes with one another so I could figure out who was still unpaired. This initial eye contact proved to be very significant for the rest of the session, and yet was unplanned initially.

Second, I had initially intended for the partners to at least share some initial information about one another, such as name, hometown, and some small talk. I decided to nix this as soon as the volume of the room became loud after the partners found one another. I told them to only share nonverbal communication at first — this was mainly so I could make sure everyone had a partner and was ready to begin. This is an example of what I learned to be the “fourth rule of Improv,” called Cut With Energy (shoutout to Big Blue Door for teaching me that!)

The unintended consequence of this is that it built the anticipation, and made the “locked eyes” part of the experience that much more impactful, and it set a blank slate for their relationship and allowed them to dive deeply into a relationship with someone without even knowing their name.

Finally, I made it fun by getting everyone on board to try to “replicate” this scientific study. I explained how it was found that possibly half of psychology studies’ findings are not reproducible, and that we had to follow these methods to the T to make sure we would actually become best friends. The gave a sense of adventure and shared purpose for the group.

In what ways might we provide more meaningful experiences like this?

I’m hoping to find and develop more mechanisms like this session, “Did We Just Become Best Friends?”

If you’re interested in talking more about this, I’d love to discuss. I’m also looking for more opportunities to facilitate workshops like this that create stronger connections between people. Let me know if you’re looking for someone with high energy and enthusiasm to facilitate them.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on June 30, 2018.