The Last Relationship-building Activity You’ll Ever Need

By: Aaron Wolowiec | Apr, 1 2022

colorful pawn pieces

Photo courtesy of Pexels/Pixabay

As more and more groups begin to meet again in-person, the need for some sort of relationship-building activity at the start of sessions, meetings, or conferences has become less a luxury and more a necessity. For starters, it’s been a while since we’ve seen some of these colleagues and friends face-to-face. But we’re also out of practice when it comes to small talk and, in some instances, we’re still navigating masked faces that are difficult to recognize and read.

Many of us have been on the receiving end of a poorly constructed get-to-know-you activity. Often referred to as icebreakers, these are usually silly, unnecessarily complex, or physically demanding exercises that end up causing more anxiety, shame, or embarrassment than anything else. 

For example, have you ever had to introduce yourself with an adjective that starts with the first letter of your first name, and then remember and recite what everyone before you said? Or perhaps you’ve been asked to detangle yourself from the human knot after just meeting a group of strangers not five minutes earlier?

Alternatively, we may find ourselves in a room of 20-30 people or more, and the facilitators ask for each participant to introduce themselves by stating their name, pronouns, title, organization, and a laundry list of other information. Knowing full well that most people could talk about themselves for days, this activity – though well intentioned and informative – eats up 45 minutes or more. In the meantime, those who have yet to speak become increasingly anxious about their turn, those who have completed their introductions check out, and there’s an abundance of detail that no one person could ever remember, let alone use.

So, what’s the alternative? Several years ago, during a ToP Network Annual Gathering, I was first introduced to liberating structures. Liberating structures are defined as easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include everyone’s perspectives and lived experiences. Liberating structures are intended to be a disruptive innovation that can replace more controlling or constraining approaches.

One of my favorite liberating structures is called impromptu networking. You can read all about it here or search for the liberating structures app (LiSA) on your smartphone. But, in short, here’s how I typically use it with the groups I work with:

  • In three rounds, participants who are able are asked to get up from their seats, raise their hands, and pair up with someone they don’t know or don’t know well. (Be prepared to work directly with participants who may need physical modifications.)
  • As soon as they pair up, participants can lower their hands (but unpaired participants will know who is still available).
  • Each round, participants will be given about five minutes (two-and-a-half minutes each) to answer the following two questions:
    • What big challenge do you bring to this gathering?
    • What do you hope to get from and give this group or community?
  • Before sending participants off to find their first pair, be sure to ask if there are any questions of clarity.
  • Additionally, clearly identify the sound participants should be listening for as a prompt to move on to the next pairing/discussion (e.g., a set of chimes, a bell, or a whistle). You’ll note here that even if you have a microphone, calling the group back together with your voice alone will simply cause them to speak louder in their pairs.
  • Finally, I always find it helpful to clearly post the two questions for all to see and refer to throughout their discussions (e.g., PowerPoint slide or flipchart).

If you or your team has a relationship-building activity you love for creating connection, building trust, and making meaning, please share with us your tips, tricks, and recommendations using the comments below or by emailing us at

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