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Getting into pairs is easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy

I recently taught a corporate improv workshop for a small department of a large multinational company. Though most of the group showed up almost half an hour late from their all day training, I was able to quickly channel everyone into some collaborative circle exercises and break down some social boundaries. Despite the long day they’d had, everyone was really fun and responsive. Just twenty minutes in and we were already cooking.

So I decided to take them into the next activity I had in mind, a partner exercise. I asked them to get into pairs. Nobody moved.

I repeated my request; everyone, without any sign of malice or rebellion, stood stock still and stared at me, awaiting my next command.

I should point out that this was an international group: a few French, a couple of Chinese and Dutch, and a sprinkling of other nationalities. But their level of English was quite high. Perplexed by the larger group dynamics, I broke it down to the level of the individual: I asked a student named Daniel – who I had chatted with earlier – to come to the other side of the circle and partner up with a colleague. He did so. Now everyone seemed to be in pairs, so I pressed on with the explanation, despite a nagging confusion.

“Now that we’re all in pairs” I said, “turn and face your partner.” Immediately Daniel started laughing loudly. I stopped my explanation, now really wondering what the hell was going on.

“I get it!” He cried. “I thought you said ‘Get into Paris!’ So I was picturing myself in Paris!”

Well, that explained it. And I had to admit, was pretty funny. Daniel thought I said get into Paris, and that’s why he didn’t find a partner. Tension punctured, everything seemed to have sorted itself out, and I prepared to resume my explanation.

But as I looked around the circle, other people were nodding agreement. With Daniel.

It turned out that fully 9 out of the 10 participants thought I asked them to get into Paris. They thought my instruction for the exercise was a simple “Get into Paris!” So they didn’t move as they were too busy picturing themselves by the Eiffel Tower eating a croissant, or whatnot.

I then, strange as it really seemed to me, realised that it must have been my fault. My instructions must have been faulty, as it’s hard to argue with 90% of the participants of a workshop. But I do love that after just twenty minutes of warm-up, on my command of Get into Paris! fully 90% of the workshop participants were entirely committed to picturing themselves in the city of love. I think the other guy was just wondering what the hell was going on.

Needless to say we made that mistake part of our session, and Paris became a running bit throughout the workshop.