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

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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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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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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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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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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