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There are icebreakers…and icebreakers…


Management consultant and freelance writer Byron Kalies gives a tongue-in-cheek account of his experiences of breaking the ice with delegates in different parts of the world.

It's November - it's cold and it's snowing. It's the Ukraine. I've just spent five days training in a sanatorium in Khmelnik. I haven't slept properly for days - (it got noisy at night in the sanatorium). I haven't talked to my family for seven days - the sanatorium didn't do telephones. I went to the 'town' of Khmelnik to try to find a telephone. I tried the post office - it had a picture of a telephone in the window. I disturbed a 60 year old woman talking to someone on the phone. "Do you speak English?" "Angleeskee? London? Niet!" "O.K. Can I use a telephone? " - I pointed to 3 or 4 public telephones and made the International gesture of the tourist who hasn't got a mobile phone - a clenched fist pressed to my ear. "Da" and she carried on.

I looked at them - nowhere to put any money - no idea how it worked. I looked over at the woman. She shrugged and carried on talking. I walked out - defeated. I haven't drunk coffee for a week - I did ask if I could have coffee instead of the tea or the stewed fruit juice - I was met with a stare and a "maybe later" - later never arrived. I've been living on the Vegetarian Trainer's International Meal - beer and salted peanuts.

Now I'm on the overnight train from Kiev to Kharkov. "They always arrive on time" - the Ukrainians proudly boast. I now know why. It's a 300-mile journey and takes 8 hours. I could walk faster. I'm in 'first class' accommodation (which means there's only two of us in this coffin that passes for a carriage). I desperately need to go to the toilet but I've seen the toilet and I'd rather not see it again. Rob, my fellow trainer is snoring - loudly. I hear my four year old daughter's voice "So daddy, tell me again why you wanted to be a trainer?"

Two days later - nine o'clock - day one - Strategic Management and People Management for fourteen Ukrainian senior statisticians. They're here for a week. They stumble in. You can feel their eyes glazing over already. The first translated question I get is "What time's coffee?".

"OK - welcome to five days of Strategic Management and People Management Skills" - you can almost feel the life being sucked out of them. I battle on = "My name's Byron Kalies and I live in England. But I'm not English - joke here I'm Welsh and proud of it" - pause whilst translator does his work. Silence. "This week will be hard work but we intend to have fun". As the word 'fun' was translated you could hear the groan. They've obviously been on fun courses before. So had I and I knew how they felt.

I decided to get off quickly and introduced my 'training partner' Rob. Sharp intake of breath and some sniggering from participants - Three days later I find out the translation implied we were lovers. This misunderstanding was further enhanced when Rob refused to use anything but a blue marker pen - he's an Everton fan. In the Ukraine 'blue' is a slang expression for gay.

"Let's split into pairs and introduce each other. Here's a list of questions which will help you find out some more information about the other: name, where you work, greatest success, what do you do in ten words or less" (a futile attempt to stop this exercise taking the whole of day one). I've stopped asking, "What would you do if you won the lottery?"

Flashback to Lesotho - fourteen statisticians from the Lesotho Bureau of Statistics - eager to learn. I'd been staying at the nicest hotel in Lesotho - the Maseru Sun - and had been watching the South African version of 'Who wants to be a millionaire', so thought I'd introduce a topical question. What I didn't comprehend however was that only 2 of these senior managers could afford TV and the average monthly salary of the group was approximately £30.

So my question, "What would you do if you won 1,000,000 rand?" had an interesting effect. One woman started crying and ran out of the room. Another woman held her head in her hands and started rocking back and forth, praying. One bloke got very angry and started screaming.

We discussed the results: I started first - I'd give up work, buy a new house, spend my days playing golf, etc. etc. They looked at me in a strange way. I asked the youngest manager what he would do. Very intensely he described how he would use the money to set up a community where the women wouldn't need to walk three hours a day to get water and the children would have lots to eat. There would be a fund for handicapped children and the old would be looked after in their twilight years. "Fine - wish I'd thought of that" my body language said. An older man started quietly - "I'd buy two more chickens" he said "and give the rest of the money away." As we heard from the entire group the stories took on a similar altruistic tone. The crying woman came back and I asked her what she would do. She ran out again screaming "I'm a Christian! I'm a Christian!" The final man - obviously the group leader - stood up. Everyone went quiet. "I would reject it. I've been thinking it through. I'd buy a nice house. But then I'd have to build a big fence around it. Employ some guards with dogs - they would be happy at first but would then be out to get my money. So, I'd need to buy a gun and keep my money with me at all time. I wouldn't be able to walk down the street anymore. So I'd refuse to take the money." By now a feeling of misery and despair was settling over the course - day one, ten o'clock - only another four days and five hours left to go.

Back to Kharkov - the by now familiar round of Eastern European political posturing goes on. "My greatest success was producing last year's Agricultural Census." Sharp intake of breath from other participants. "As you know, the technology let us down". Man on my right (Head of Computing) starting to go purple. " But I did it and it was a great success." Sits down. Glances at name of the course on his notebook. Stands up quickly. "I mean my team produced a great success".

Edited highlights of UK courses flash through my mind. The person that stood up and said " I'm here and I don't want to be and I'm not saying another word all week" stands out. So does "I'm Reginald and I think it's important that I tell you I'm gay and have just split up with my husband." At which point someone else leapt up and announced "I'm a transsexual". The question they were asked was "What do you think you can bring to the course this week?"

Any question can produce equally bizarre results. Even if you leave it as open as "What are your hopes and fears for the week?" you will get "To survive" "To meet new friends", "To learn something useful" in both columns. One memorable course which brought a great deal of pre-course baggage with it (I think that's the p.c. term) had an ex-couple in the same group. Under 'hopes' was written, "To get laid" and under 'fears', "but not by you". It promised to be an interesting week.

A few years back, having attended a course in Berlin where we were encouraged to explore our 'authentic' feelings, I tried an exercise on breaking down barriers and removing preconceptions. The idea was that, in pairs, course members would have to guess certain things about their previously unknown partner and discuss their preconceptions, e.g. what type of holiday do you think they would prefer? They guess and discuss their answer. The theory being that they have made this choice based on nothing really, or on someone they know who reminds them of this. They check this out - have a good laugh and realise that this person is different. As a group we have a good laugh at some of the best stories and we're bonding already and I can say things like "Well the rest of the week is downhill from here". The first three events this worked like a dream.

Event four - I notice some tears, some storming out and slamming of doors. Perceptive as I am, I realise this isn't a good sign. I had introduced a few new questions; "How old do you think the other person is?" and "What newspaper do you think they read?". Ten minutes later, everyone is back and we talk. The upset woman is back and I ask her how it went. "Not bad", she says. I wait. "I didn't mind that he thought I was forty-six when I'm only forty-one, but to say he thinks I read the Daily Mail takes the biscuit." How we laughed.

This exercise was based on an experience a fellow trainer had in Berlin where a woman glared at him for the whole two weeks. This trainer is a big bloke and can look very intimidating. He's Welsh and hairy. The woman was small and Hungarian. She looked petrified of everything. Everytime he said anything the woman would look at him with, what he took, to be pure evil. After thirteen days of this he had had enough. At the last night party he decided to speak to her. He saw her alone in a corner of the room and strode over to her. She gave him that look which was really getting to him by now. "Look, I don't know what I've done to upset you or whether you hate Welsh people, but I've just had a gut ful of you giving me the evil eye every day. If you don't like me just tell me!". She looked at her feet. "I do like you. It's just that you remind me of my ex husband who used to beat me and once nearly killed me with a knife." "Oh".

In truth, it makes no difference at all what you ask - the idea is to get them talking, get them used to you, make a fool of yourself - they'll feel better. Ask who they'd like to have a 1-to-1 with, even though you know there'll be the occasional tears as someone says, "My real father" - so what! Whatever you do will be wrong. There are a dozen or so grown up people sitting around like schoolchildren and they don't know the rules yet, so show them. Show them it's OK to get your training partner's name wrong. Embarrass them by making them pair the name of their first pet with their mother's maiden name to get their porn star name. Whatever - by the end of the week they'll be either crying because they hate to leave or sneaking off before breakfast because they detest everyone in the group. It's the first chance of the week you get to do something wrong and be proud of it. Enjoy!


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