By: Dianne Dickerson, Catherine Saar & Anna King

“A friend is someone who helps you up when you’re down. And if they cannot, they lay beside you and listen.” -Winnie the Pooh

Friday, July 30th is National Friendship Day! We all know that friendship is a cornerstone of being connected, feeling cared for, and gives meaning to life’s journey. It is no surprise, therefore, that friendship and strong bonds are also meaningful contributors to purposeful and impact-driven group events, conversations, or meetings. Facilitators who harness the gift of friendship can use it to support real progress in their work with groups. In this article, three of Integrated Work’s facilitators reflect on how friendships support real progress in groups and how facilitators can nurture these close relationships among participants.

In my over 20 years of facilitating, I have noticed that deep relationships equate with increased participation and engagement, more meaningful conversations, a willingness to collaborate and be vulnerable, and impactful progress on the issues that teams and groups care about most. As a facilitator, I do everything in my power to foster trusting relationships with and among participants, including doing outreach prior to any group event.

Before an event, I reach out to participants (often individually) to ensure they will attend and to indicate that I am looking forward to their presence and the time to reconnect. Early outreach increases attendance. I also leverage individual relationships by asking participants to share their experiences, challenges, and expertise with their colleagues. I notice getting more “yes” responses when I ask individuals that I know and with whom I have a positive relationship with. The friendships that participants have with one another also support a successful event by attracting increased participation and engagement. Friends like to spend time together. During an event, friendship between participants increases engagement and of course, the amount of fun they have together. Participants seem more willing to share and to be vulnerable when they know they are in the company of friends. If members of your group have yet to develop relationships, there are strategies that you can use to ignite the process.

For example, when the group is getting started, I ensure we have shared agreements on how participants will behave toward one another so that each participant feels heard, respected, and valued. I also incorporate connecting activities that give participants a chance to really get to know one another. Warm-up activities that go deeper than formalities are a great strategy. You can read our blog on superpower introductions for an example activity. The key is to stretch participants beyond their comfort level but not to the point of breaking. Vulnerability and trust go hand in hand.

Having participants work in small groups is another strategy for relationship building. When I lead a meeting in-person, I often organize social gatherings where participants have a chance to share a meal or a drink with colleagues so they can get to know each other outside of a work context. Sometimes I provide prompts or other suggestions for participants’ time together. As the group comes back together, I encourage sharing what inspiring or fun facts participants learned about one another as a way to build even more familiarity in the group.

If you’ve focused on building connection before and during your event, collaboration afterwards occurs more readily, and the quality of follow-on conversations deepen. Connections can turn into friendships which strengthen participants’ bond to each other and to the work of the event. Here are a few ways to keep the energy flowing.

It’s all about enhancing the connection. After the event, starting a conversation on your discussion forum, or via email, is a great way to keep folks engaging with one another. Select a topic from the event that had a lot of interest and post an interesting question, or a useful link that furthers the discussion. Invite others to do the same and use “@mention” to ask those who have particular interest or expertise to contribute. If you took photos, you might share them after the event and encourage participants to follow-up with others who were in their work groups, as one possibility. Another way to connect folks is if you heard a gem from one participant that another could use, connect them after the event with a reminder of the topic that they both care about. You can also follow-up with a participant who is facing a challenge to offer encouragement or to ask how it turned out. Being seen and heard is powerful, and sometimes just knowing that someone cares enough to reach out can make a big difference.

These are just a few ideas for enhancing connection and building relationships after an event that can make a big difference when the group reconvenes. And who knows, maybe some of those connections will become friendships – with all kinds of possibility.