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The Unexpected Collaborator

By on Apr 12, 2016 in Blog |

Article appeared in “The Collaborative Review”.
The Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals
FALL 2015 / VOLUME 15, ISSUE 12.


I volunteered to create an icebreaker for a recent retreat for about 25 multi-disciplinary collaborative professionals. I chose a simple concept – tossing a ball of yarn to a participant, who would then tell a little bit about themselves before tossing it to another participant. Some folks were a little nervous, some clearly didn’t want to do it, still others wanted to just get on with the retreat. There was laughter, and constant reminders to hold onto the yarn before tossing.

A simple enough concept, with extraordinary results.

People chose to challenge themselves. While occasionally a participant would toss the yarn across the table, most chose to hurl the yarn far down the single table, with the result that the yarn became stretched and interwoven in increasingly complicated ways. And as the yarn pattern became more intricate, the stories became broader, richer and more intimate. The initial nervous laughter at the table decreased and then disappeared all together. The participant-speakers became more thoughtful and revelatory with regard to the story each chose to share. The participant-listeners became more engaged and respectful of the intimate knowledge of another’s story. We recognized at that moment how little we really know of the collaborative professionals with whom we work.

In addition, there was the unspoken communication that arose from the handling of the yarn. One or two participants set the yarn on the table before them as they spoke but most continued to handle the yarn in unconscious ways either spooling and unspooling the ball, or twisting a thread of it, or tossing it lightly back and forth between hands as they spoke. Several people held the yarn and twisted it so, so tightly. Others gathered their thoughts by staring into the ball before they spoke. One woman continued to pull the yarn as she told her story so that she had a pile of yarn before her that had to be rewound before tossing to the next participant. How the yarn was handled spoke to the depth of the sharing.

At the end we stood, still holding our piece of yarn and we admired the pattern and interweaving of the yarn. We discovered how it connected us in unexpected and delightful ways. We realized how, through one another, we were all connected even though those connections may be distant.

We left they yarn in a big pile on the table and toward the end of the day, as we gathered together to close our retreat, I started to untangle the snarl so that I could rewind the ball. There was much laughter about this and comments about how tedious that process was. I worked alone for a while. Gradually, and with no other comment, others started to reach in and to disentangle the pieces before them. We worked silently on our section of the yarn. And then without discussion but by unspoken consent we would all stop our work so that one person could continue on and move parts of the snarl around so that we could all continue our work. The meeting went on around us as we worked. The unspoken and seamless collaboration that surrounded the untangling of the yarn was for me one of the highlights of the retreat. We came together with a common goal, we recognized one another’s roles and strengths without designation, and we untangled the yarn.