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Five Questions To Ask When Designing a Group Warm-Up

by Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
     Most professional trainers who speak at a variety of groups and events have at least a few stories of epic fails, when the presentation just does not work. When the group does not like or connect with us or our methods. We will all face this humiliation at some point. And when we do, we will flail, we will flounder for the duration, and then flee. And we will collect our fee.
     As tough as these failures tend to be, they are great for taking stock of our skills and finding the weak links in our preparation. One of the most common reasons for the fatal disconnect between presenter and group is an inadequate or inappropriate warm-up. Like the time I was asked to speak for a professional singles’ group monthly brunch – when I asked them to stand up and form a half-cirlcle they got up and formed a line to get bagels and lox. I had an arsenal of experiential exercises at the ready and none of them landed on this group.
Question #1 to ask when desgining a warm-up: What does the group want?
     Had I researched the gig a little better I would have learned that previous speakers included a tax specialist, a makeover consultant, and a professional organizer. This group wanted to nosh and listen to an expert, emphasis on listen. I could have prepared a snappy introductory talk about what 25 years as a couples therapist has taught me about relationships. Had I met the group where they were, they might have followed me into a little interaction. Which brings me to
 Question #2: What does the group expect?
     Whether going in to to work with the staff of a company or agency or running a group or seminar in which no one is likely to know anyone else, information-gathering is key to the design of anything we ask of the participants. As the trainer called in to help deal with workplace issues, we need to know as much as possible about the way the training event has been described to the workers and the terms of their participation, e.g. is it the workers’ choice to be there? Asking a mandated group of professionals “what drew you to this training today?” is the first step onto an elevator that is going down. We need to learn as much as possible about the group’s warm-up before arriving in the room.
Question #3; What is the low-hanging fruit?
     The low-hanging fruit is the most readily accessible hook into the group’s needs. In a workshop filled with participants who are not likely to know one another the low-hanging fruit might be simple, creative improvisation games that start with sharing basic information (name, how did they learn about this workshop) and gradually deepen the interactions. A quick read of the situation I encountered at the singles’ brunch revealed that bagels and coffee were something the group was willing to talk about. Types of bagels turned into a metaphor for personality types, flavors of coffee a metaphor for ways to enhance one’s best qualities.
 Question #4: Where is the group’s attention?
     In many group situations, the default focus of attention is self-protection. A well-structured warm-up is like the jetway leading from an airport onto an airplane – to be safe and effective it has to link up properly with where the group starts and lead them to make the connections that meet your objectives – which means we can make the group aware of their attention to self-protection while expanding their choices for achieving it. A workplace group, for example, may be focused on looking good in front of peers and supervisors, in which case a warm-up should be structured to allow participants to respond without risking more exposure than they are ready for and at the same time highlight the concerns that are common to everyone in the group.
 Question #5: Where do you want to direct their attention?
Sticking with the jetway image, the warm-up gradually redirects the group’s attention from where everybody starts and supports them in a transition to greater possibility. A spectrogram can ease a group into communicating about anything from their favorite color to their political views, while the wording, pacing and context of the questions serve to focus the group’s attention to a process or dynamic.

In a way we are continually warming up to new, expanded ideas and better ways to do something.  And for that, failure is the best teacher, because it makes no judgments. 
Nicholas Wolff facilitates a weekly training group in action/experiential methods for psychotherapists, addiction counselors and other mental health professionals at Lifestage in Smithtown, NY. The fall 2013 series begins on Oct. 2 at 7 pm. For more information or to set up an interview as a prerequisite to joining the group contact Nick Wolff at 631-366-4265 or Read more about the group at


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