The Secret Ice-Breaker: The Type of Play that Boosts Connection

The Secret Ice Breaker that Boosts Connection

We humans were born to connect and we were born to play. Put them both together and it can spark off a little bit of magic. When we play, we connect. When we’re connected, we get playful. Play boosts academic success, lowers stress, flourishes our innovative side and nurtures well-being, and that’s all backed by research. As for connection, we thrive when we have it and struggle when we don’t. 

There are plenty of ways to play and plenty of ways to connect, but new research from the University of Oxford has found a brilliant way to do both – join a singing group.

Singing is a powerful way to break the ice and boost feelings of connectedness between a group of people. According to the research, singing groups bond quicker than other types of groups such as creative writing or craft groups.

Every culture on the planet has its singers and the majority of people can sing, but it doesn’t mean everyone does it well. If you’re someone who can’t carry a tune (or someone, like me, whose musical genius isn’t recognised by the people in your life who don’t love your singing the way you do) not to worry – science has the answer.

New research out of Northwestern University has found that singing beautifully isn’t as much a talent as something that we learn that can decline over time if not used. So it’s not that you’re a bad singer, it’s that you haven’t practiced enough. (I knew it! There’s the voice of an angel inside me … they just need to listen to it more – or even better, sing with me. ‘Hey you guys…’)

Being able to sing well seems to have more to do with the kind of practice it takes to play a musical instrument than is does innate ability. Of course having a few good genes always helps, but if singing isn’t in your denims, it’s not a deal breaker – all you need is a bit of practice. As Steven Demorest, lead author of the study explained,

‘People need a place to sing and have fun without worrying about how good they are.’

Yes, we do – and that’s what a singing group can do.

Singing ability seems to have an element of ‘use or lose it’ about it. The research found that while school children receive music lessons at school, their singing improves. Fast forward to adulthood and the ability seems to fade if it isn’t practiced, to the point that some college students have a singing ability comparable to kindergarteners. 

Singing is a great way to play, and anything that nurtures healthy connections with others is a powerful way to keep your mental health strong.

As explained by co-author of the Oxford study, Dr Jacques Launay,

‘Given that music-making is an important part of all human cultures throughout history, we think it probably evolved to serve some purpose. Evidence suggests that the really special thing that music does for us is encourage social bonding between whole groups of people playing and dancing together.’

It seems that singing can act like a bit of a social glue when time is too short for everyone in the group to establish connections with each other.

The Oxford study looked at singing groups, craft groups and creative writing groups that met weekly for seven months. In every class, the participants felt closer to each other at the end of the two hour session than they did at the start and all classes were similarly close at the end of the seven months.

The differences came at the very beginning of the study. Singing seemed to be a better ice-breaker than the other activities as it connected people more right from the start. Singing in a group boosted the way people felt about each other from early on. It seemed to bond the entire group simultaneously. 

One to one interactions will always be critical to establishing and maintaining really close relationships, but singing in a group seems to be something a little bit wonderful, giving all of the benefits of play and supercharging social connections while you’re at it.

6 Comments

Karen

Wow!!! I just found your website today, (link from a friend about child anxiety) and 5 days ago, you posted exactly what I believe about why my office group should include singing in our team building day. I have put forward idea for the past three years, but haven’t been able to pitch an idea that flies. Are there any more specific recommendations to get adult colleagues to sing as an ice breaker on a team building day?

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you found me! Singing in front of people is one of those things that people tend to run towards with open arms, or away from with jets on their feet. My suggestion would be to sell it as play, rather than as singing. Let them know they can be silly with it and that they don’t have to use their proper singing voice. Give them permission to be dreadful – maybe make that part of the task. This will help people to feel more relaxed and will ease fears about potential embarrassment. Keep going with your idea – it’s a great one. I wish you all the best!

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Lisa Edwards

so interesting! I am a primary school teacher…Australian living/teaching in Fiji. I teach at a brilliant school called the Multiple Intelligence School, Suva..group singing is part of our regular routine. Our whole school sings together for the last 1/2 hour of the week – but that’s for the purpose of teaching ‘synergy’. We also have parent activities once per term…trying to connect people to form a community…you’ve given me an idea for next year…I have always sung in, and taught choirs…and from time to time parents come to me and say ‘maybe you could teach ME to sing’….how cool…love this article. Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

That’s wonderful! I love that your school sings together for the last half an hour of the week. There are many things that some people and cultures know intuitively what science is still discovering. I always enjoy hearing about these.

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Hey Sigmund

Debi thank you! If I could reach through the screen and hug you I would. Yours was one of the very first emails I received and it meant so much to me. It means even more that you’re still here. Hope you can be with me for the next 17k!

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Debi

I love following your blog, and your instagram. You have such a gift for making things so clear, and putting the puzzle pieces together that seem so confusing at times. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us! Over 17k followers on Facebook now…. I told you it would grow like wild fire!! You’re amazing!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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