Our mission statement, copyright notice, and cast of characters.

Guest Gamer
An Interview with Dr. Ellen Kaye Gehrke
She works on intercultural—and interspecies—communication.

Metaphorical Simulation Game
Sticks by Ellen Kaye Gehrke
Exploring energy management.

Facilitating Large Groups
Here are some crowd-control techniques.

99 Seconds
Draw A Tree
Can you see it?

Characteristics of Admired Leaders
Can you solve this cryptic cluster?

Online Activity
The Telephone game with a twist.

Change Management
Handling Resistance to Interactive Lectures
Too little time, too many participants.





To increase and improve the use of interactive, experiential strategies to improve human performance in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable way.

Editorial Roster

Editor: Sivasailam (Thiagi) Thiagarajan

Assistant Editor: Raja Thiagarajan

Associate Editor: Julie England

Editorial Advisory Board: Bill Wake, Les Lauber, Matt Richter, and <type your name here>

Copyright Info

The materials in this newsletter are copyright 2005 by The Thiagi Group. However, they may be freely reproduced for educational/training activities. There is no need to obtain special permission for such use as long as you do not reproduce more than 100 copies per year. Please include the following statement on all reproductions:

Reprinted from PLAY FOR PERFORMANCE. Copyright © 2005 by The Thiagi Group, Inc.

For any other use of the content, please contact us ( for permission.

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Guest Gamer

This column features interviews with outstanding designers and users of interactive experiential activities. This month's guest gamer, Dr. Ellen Kaye Gehrke, is a professor of international business and management at Alliant International University in San Diego, California. She has been using interactive activities and exercises throughout most of her 25 years of teaching at the George Washington University, University of Maryland, Boston University, Clemson University, the University of Ghent in Belgium, and several other European Universities. One of her passions in the past 8 years has involved adopting and gentling wild horses from the US Bureau of Land Management. I caught up with her during a break in her busy teaching and horse training schedule to interview her for Play for Performance.

An Interview with Dr. Ellen Kaye Gehrke

PFP: Ellen, how did you end up doing what you are doing now?

Ellen: Well, things have been evolving for me the past several years. I have been teaching in the area of business and management for almost 25 years. My Ph.D. is in organizational development and strategic management. I have an MBA in marketing and a BS in natural resource management. I spent 10 years in the environmental field studying black bears for the National Park Service, and worked in Montana to help organize farmers and ranchers in monitoring and controlling strip mining and other environmental issues. I ended up in management since I kept seeing how dysfunctional people and organizations were from the inside. I have had my own consulting business most of my career and always gravitated toward working with people for better performance and satisfaction. In the past few years, I have found that horses can offer a lot of insight, personal growth, and leadership development for individuals, teams, and organizations. So, to make a long story short, I am becoming more of a specialist in the area of equine facilitated leadership development, though I teach cross cultural management, entrepreneurship, international business, organizational behavior, leadership, and other management related subjects.

PFP: Equine facilitated leadership development? Tell me more about it.

Ellen: When we came back from Europe I bought my first horse and immediately got tossed off on my first trail ride. Thus began a long journey of understanding horses. In that process, I learned a lot about patience, trust, authenticity, and congruence—and about myself. My experiences with horses became a foundation of how I developed myself as a teacher, trainer, and consultant. I now have ten horses of various sorts, wild horses, ranch horses, show horses—all of whom are better teachers than me in the lessons of life.

PFP: So how does all of this relate to designing and using interactive training strategies?

Ellen: I am designing a special program about discovering your leadership and natural authority. The entire course is interactive between people and horses. I have been using what I know about instructional design and experiential learning to create activities that assist people in developing more effective leadership skills.

PFP: So what types of activities do you do in this program?

Ellen: Among different activities, I have people lead horses through an obstacle course. Amazing how often the horse ends up taking over—just like in real life for many of these participants. Sometimes people lead the horse with such little energy that the horse starts to drag along too—mirroring the energy of the participant. The debriefing of this activity provides rich information and insights to the participants.

PFP: How do your clients respond?

Ellen: I have been amazed with the results since I started leading these workshops. Working with horses is so unusual that it sticks with people. I had a senior level vice president do a one-on-one session with me several months ago and he still refers to the lessons he learned during our session. He told me that he has done a lot of leadership training and never had anything with this kind of staying power in the lessons learned and applied. The beauty of these training sessions is that horses have no agenda, they make no judgments of people, and they change when the participants change their energy and intention. People get very excited and emotional about the clarity of the insights they receive.

PFP: Have you had any unexpected or embarrassing moments while conducting your activities?

Ellen: Twenty years ago, I worked with a client company with very low morale. During an activity for exploring how people in the organization were connected to each other, the participants stepped back, saying they did not want to play. The outcome that I wanted did not happen, but the truth was that the participants behaved in a congruent way that reflected the anger, low morale, and dissatisfaction within the organization. Realizing this prevented me from getting stuck with the feeling that my activity “failed”.

More recently, in one of my equine workshops, the participants were so unfocused that the horses picked up the energy and became distracted. They started running around the area, bucking, and squealing. One of them was so wound up that he jumped out. I was startled and the group realized that it was their lack of focus that caused the “rodeo”. The next session they were focused and present mentally and—voila!—so were the horses.

PFP: What advice do you have for newcomers to the type of activities you use?

Ellen: This is a touchy subject for me. I am shocked at how many people just hang out a sign and claim that they are consultants when they have no deep skills for this kind of work. I had one woman participate in a workshop a few months ago, just taking some riding lessons. She emailed me to ask what type of horse she should buy so that she could start doing this type of work. That was scary! It has taken me years of experience in working with people and horses to put together this type of work.

The best advice I can give to newcomers is to seek mentors, follow them, observe, observe, and observe! Get training that is useful—not just some certificate that says you completed something (but still don't have the necessary skills). Ask for advice. Be sincere and go ahead and experiment. But tell the truth to people about how much you really know. Don't fake it. People know fakes and it cheapens the field of training, game design, and learning from the heart. People respond to genuine care and passion when they see someone work from the heart and with skill.

PFP: Along those lines, what do you think are the most important characteristics of a facilitator?

Ellen: Be present and fully engaged. Be aware of what is happening at all levels mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally within the group and between you and the group. Pay attention to your heart sense more than your head sense. Create a safe environment for learning to occur.

PFP: What is the one thing that you hate the most in a facilitator?

Ellen: Hate is a pretty strong word…but I do despise fakes and people who don't know what they are talking about. I don't like being subjected to incompetent people who charge me money and do a lousy job. I guess that is pretty clear.

PFP: What is the one thing that you hate the most in an instructional game?

Ellen: Busy work and wasting time. The game should not dominate the learning.

PFP: What types of games do you use most frequently?

Ellen: In my teaching and consulting, I like variations of interactive lectures. Since my training involves synthesizing a lot of information and then applying the information to solve problems, I like activities that encourage thinking. Participants like the interactive lectures and have said that they learn more when I use them. I particularly like the Team Quiz format. Many folks, no matter what culture they belong to, tend to like a little competition built into learning—whether it is competition with themselves or with others. So, I like the activities that set up some healthy competition, especially among teams. People don't like to let team members down if they can help it.

PFP: What is your most favorite game?

Ellen: I like a game called Win All That You Can. It has a built-in jolt feature. I have played it in many countries and it always turns out that people interpret “win all that you can” to mean “beat everyone else”. The lesson at the end is that the game can be played so that you win more if you cooperate with everyone. Participants and client organizations often shift how they view winning after playing this game. The game powerfully differentiates the win-lose versus win-win paradigm.

My favorite activities these days are incorporated in my full day workshop with the horses. It is a process that has profound impact on people in how they understand their relationship with others.

PFP: Do you have any book recommendations?

Ellen: Well, I have looked at many game books and I actually find most of them full of activities that are not so helpful. In contrast, I have used Katt Koppet's book, Training to Imagine. The Improv activities are great and I have used most of them since I bought the book. I like Peter Senge's work on systems and have utilized his principles in designing my activities. He has a new book out called Presence, which I recommend. I also recommend a book called Hidden Messages in Water. It is not a game design book but is fascinating reading that can jolt you into rethinking some of your own games and activities with corporations and organizations. Also, even though this is not a book, I recommend the Heartmath Institute ( ). They have some great research going on about heart intelligence that should be considered in the work that everyone is doing.

PFP: What is your prediction about the future of games and activities?

Ellen: I think we need more action learning modes in how we work with others. People want games and activities that make them really think, have a long lasting impact, and teach them something they can apply immediately. In my world, calling something a game causes a little bit of cringe in the stomach. But when you work them into learning and consulting, participants really enjoy the engaging process. So, I am optimistic about the future. I just hope we continue to develop professionals who have integrity, honesty, congruency, clarity, and insight. There is a lot of stress out there and if we can shift how people handle it, maybe we can make things better bit by bit.

Metaphorical Simulation Game

by Ellen Kaye Gehrke

When people interact or communicate with each other, they use certain amount of energy or pressure. Here's an activity that makes participants aware of such energy exchange and helps them explore how to manage this process.

Learning Outcomes



You will need one stick for each pair of participants. These sticks should be about 3-4 feet long and about 1 inch in diameter. Hardware stores have dowels of different sizes and they will cut them to the required length for you.


Round 1

Ask participants to pair up. It usually works best if the partners in each pair are about the same height.

Give a stick to each pair. Ask the partners to place the stick near their belly button (or around the solar plexus) and keep it in position without using their hands.

Ask partners to decide who will be A and who will be B. Instruct A to lead B around the room (or to some destination) without the stick falling from between their bodies. During this process neither partner may talk or touch the stick with their hands.

Let this activity continue for 2 to 5 minutes. If the stick falls, just tell the partners to pick it up and start over.

When partners complete the task, have A and B switch their roles: B leads A around the room (or to some destination) without the stick falling. Let the activity continue for another 2 to 5 minutes. Remind participants that there should be no talking.

Round 2

Without debriefing, ask partners to switch the roles again so that A leads and B follows. During this round, B will have her eyes closed. As before, let the activity continue for about 2 to 5 minutes. Remind everyone that the objective is not to let the stick drop and the constraint is not talk.

After a suitable time period, have B lead A, with A's eyes closed. Let the activity continue for 2 to 5 minutes.

Additional Rounds

If you really want a challenge, ask both A and B to close their eyes and take turns to lead and to follow.

For a team activity, ask two or three pairs to stand close to each other and move together without dropping the sticks.


Ask participants to recall and report what happened. Here are some typical comments from participants:

Ask participants how they felt during the experience. Here are some typical reactions:

Ask participants to reflect on what they learned from the activity.

I have found that participants begin to pay more attention to what is called C-P-R: Cue-Pressure-Response. Partners establish the cue for communication. When that occurs, they are able to apply the least amount of pressure to get results. When the follower responds to the pressure, the leader is able to calibrate how much (or how little) pressure is required.


Facilitating Large Groups

Most facilitators are frightened when they are asked to conduct training games with large groups. Actually, large groups have some major advantages. During the past few years, I have actually begun welcoming sessions that involve hundreds of participants.

Based on our experiences and on concepts from complexity theory, here are crowd-control techniques for transforming unruly mobs into smart swarms.

What is a large group? For the purposes of this discussion, let us define it as 50-1200 participants in a face-to-face context.

Good News

Bad News

Crowd-Control Techniques

Co-facilitation. Work with a co-facilitator. Take turns talking to the group and watching out for troublemakers.

Game Wardens. Deputize several participants to act as Game Wardens. Instruct these wardens not to play the game but to observe what is happening. Ask them to listen carefully to your instructions, monitor the group assigned to them, clarify the rules, and maintain law and order. Don't become obsessed about recruiting and training the Game Wardens before the session. You can actually deputize everyone seated on the front row and provide them just-in-time instructions.

Preparation. Pay special attention to the room set up. Place handouts and game materials at the play tables ahead of time.

Packaged materials. Give each participant a large envelope with all play materials as they enter the room. Place materials for later use in separate envelopes, each with a bold number. Label these inner envelopes, “Do not open until further instructions.”

No place to sit. If your activity requires participants wandering around, make sure that there is plenty of uncluttered space. Consider conducting a standing session without any chairs in the room. If possible, conduct the activity outdoors.

Audiovisual rule. Use this audiovisual rule: Talk through the steps and rules and also display the key points on the screen.

Two screens. Use two independent LCD projectors and screens. Use one screen for instructions and information and the other screen for displaying a countdown timer.

Several flipcharts. Plant several flipcharts all around the room for use by teams of participants.

Whistle while they play. Use a loud whistle to get participants' attention. Early in the session, establish a ground rule that when participants hear the whistle, they are to stop talking and to ask other people to stop talking.

See the funny side. Maintain a sense of humor. After all, it's only a game.

Score board. Display scores on a screen. But don't make a big issue out of keeping accurate scores.

Divide and Conquer

Remember that a large group of 1200 is made up of 1200 individual participants, or 600 pairs, or 400 triads, or 200 groups of five players. Here are some techniques that use this simple fact:

Individual play. Use thought experiments and guided visualization exercises. Each person “interacts” indirectly with you and not with each other.

Paired play. Divide participants into pairs and have them play in pairs.

Three's company. Divide participants into triads. Play two-person games, with one person taking turns to act as the neutral judge.

Board games. Seat players around different tables. Have a seat for one more person than the required number of players. Randomly select a person at each table to be the game warden.

Breakout rooms. Use several facilitators. Divide the large group into smaller, breakout groups. Conduct the same game in different rooms (or in different parts of the same room).

Mob scene. Use nomadic activities that involve players roaming around and pairing up with others.

Game expo. Set up game booths around the room with video games and puzzles. Have participants roam around and play whatever game they like. Keep a Hall of Fame display.

Vicarious play. Conduct a quiz game with 2-5 selected participants. Use a display that simulates a TV game show. Invite everyone else to pretend to be the studio audience and play along.

99 Seconds

Draw A Tree

99 Seconds is a special type of training session in which the presenter makes a brisk, self-contained presentation that lasts for less than 99 seconds. For more information about this efficient training strategy, see the April 2002 issue of PFP.

Although it is difficult to conduct an interactive exercise within 99 seconds, we explored an interesting graphic activity in the previous issue of PFP. Here's another 99-seconds activity that also involves a quick drawing exercise just like in the August activity. However, this activity makes a different point.

Place an index card and a pencil on each seat (to avoid wasting time distributing these items).

Ask everyone to draw a tree on the index card within 45 seconds. Explain that this tree could be a realistic one or an abstract one. The only critical requirement is that it should drawn within the 45-second time limit.

Pause while participants complete this task.

After 45 seconds (it doesn't matter if some of the artists are still working on their masterpieces), begin debriefing. Instead of conducting a time-consuming discussion, present the major learning point this way:

Look at your tree. How many of you included the roots when you drew the tree?

Very few of you did that!

So what is holding up the trees without the root system? How do these trees get water and nutrition?

You must agree that the root system is an important part of tree. Why did you not draw it? Was it because you usually don't see the roots?

How many other things do you habitually ignore just because they are not visible? Have you stopped thinking about critical elements that are out of sight? What problems are likely to arise from this type of selective thinking? How can we prevent this habit?


Characteristics of Admired Leaders

A cryptic cluster puzzle is a list of items that belong to the same category. The items are enciphered with a substitution code in which every letter of the alphabet is consistently replaced by another letter.

Here's a list of 11 characteristics of admired leaders from The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner (published by Jossey-Bass © 2003. ISBN 0787968331). Can you solve the puzzle and identify all the characteristics?












How To Solve Cryptic Clusters

Would you like two hints?

The solution

Online Activity


Did you ever play the Telephone game during your childhood? In this game, children sit in a circle, and the first child whispers a message to the next child. The second child whispers to third child and so on until everyone has heard the whispered message and transmitted it to the next person. In the end, when children compare the original and the final version of the message, they usually burst out laughing at the way the message gets distorted.

We have designed an online game (called Yin-Yang) based on Telephone with an interesting twist. Recently, we used this game to explore direct and indirect modes in intercultural communication.

Direct and Indirect Communication

Indirect communication assumes that people understand the meaning without having to tell everything. It tones down unpleasant aspects of the message by using convoluted language and metaphors.

Direct communication makes everything explicit. People using this mode of communication tell you exactly what mean in a direct and assertive fashion.

How Yin-Yang Is Played

In this game, the first player writes a note in direct communication mode (example: “You're stupid!”).

The next player converts it into indirect communication mode (example: “There are many factors that make one person different from another. In the factor of appearance, you are beautiful. In the factor of strength, you are strong. In the factor of intelligence, you are somewhere among typical people, slightly below the statistical average. Of course, that does not mean that you are not a wonderful human being.”)

The next player sees the message in the indirect mode and converts it into the direct mode. This alternating conversion continues and at the end we can compare different versions of the same message in the two modes.

A Sample Game

During one of the most recent sessions, we started with this direct statement:

I love you.

And ended up with this direct statement:

One price only: $15. Do you want to buy it or not?

In case you are curious, here's how the message alternated beween the direct and the indirect modes until the noise in the system changed the entire meaning:

Direct: I love you.

Indirect: I hand knit this poncho for you. I thought you would like it.

Direct: This hand-made poncho costs $15.

Indirect: This is really a very good offer, high quality, nice price. Would you be able to spare $15 for this superb product?

Direct: One price only: $15. Do you want to buy it or not?

Would you like to play this game?

Remember you will see a message. Your first task is to figure out in which mode (direct or indirect) the message is written. Your next step is to convert it into the other mode (indirect or direct) and type this converted message in a text box. When done, you simply click “Send”.

After sending your converted message, you can see all the earlier versions of the message.

Click here if you'd like to play this online game.


Hints for the cryptic cluster Characteristics of Admired Leaders

The first item on the list is HONEST.
Another item on the list is BROAD-MINDED.

Back to the puzzle.

Forward to the solution.

Change Management

Handling Resistance to Interactive Lectures

For more than two decades, I have been combining the structure and control of lectures and the interest and interaction of games. The result is the interactive lecture strategy, which incorporates highly motivating game elements and yet enables you to retain complete instructional control. Because interactive lectures are flexible, you can shift between a traditional lecture and the interactive variety with very little effort. If you know your subject area and have an outline for your presentation, you can easily convert the session into a lecture game.

In spite of its flexibility and proven effectiveness, some trainers suffer anxiety attacks about using interactive lectures. Through my conversations with such trainers, I have collected a list of their concerns. Here are three “popular” concerns and my reassuring responses. You may use these logical responses when you face resistance toward interactive strategies from your managers and colleagues:

Concern: I don't have enough time to cover my training content. Wasting time with participative activities will make it impossible for me cover everything.

Response: As a trainer, should you cover the content or help participants discover the content by encouraging them to explore the topic? If training is just telling, you can cover a lot more by talking faster. But surely there is more to training than merely presenting information within a given period of time. If you believe that training involves learning, retention, recall, and application, you need to encourage participants to take active responsibility. That is what interactive lectures enable you to do.

Concern: I don't have time for all the additional preparation required for interactive lectures.

Response: Perhaps you can save the time that you spend on preparing PowerPoint® slides and use it for creating handouts that support interactive lectures. Most interactive lecture formats, though, do not need additional preparation time beyond the time you need for outlining your lecture.

Concern: I have too many participants to effectively use these interactive lecture techniques.

Response: Most interactive lectures can be used with groups of any size because the interaction involves individuals or two participants (rather than the entire group). In a design called Faqs And Fakes, for example, you ask individual participants to come up with plausible answers to different questions and then let each person decide which answer is the “official” one. This activity can be conducted with large audiences without any need to organize them into teams. Even those interactive lectures that require teamwork can be conducted in large groups by asking only a few selected teams to report out their conclusions.


Solution to the cryptic cluster Characteristics of Admired Leaders












Back to the puzzle.