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Icebreakers: I could never really get the hang of using them at the first meeting when training hospice volunteers. I usually got eye rolls and polite “oh here we go” smiles so I opted for a more conversational start to training new volunteers who had real expectations for a serious mission.

I did however, develop a few exercises of my own that I introduced into the middle of volunteer training. Admittedly, these were often self entertaining and helped keep me engaged and I tried to deliver them with a twinkle so that the volunteers understood that the subject at hand was not just about doom and gloom. Hopefully they saw a lighter, quirkier side that prepared them to view patients and families with appreciation for the diverse and sometimes absurd situations that might arise.

One exercise for a small group was “two forks.” I asked the volunteers to arrange two identical forks in any setting they wanted. I told them to just arrange them on the table however they envisioned them at the moment. After the volunteers arranged the two forks, I would “interpret” their arrangement with phrases such as, “you are very open minded” or “you are extremely creative.” Teens especially liked this exercise. They would smile wryly and mentally call me out on my “game” but they would play anyway and seemed to enjoy the spoof of psychological testing. (I always did “fess up” and tell the volunteers that it was all made up) But then we would seriously discuss volunteering with various personalities and how to best connect with folks.

Another exercise that I used in group training was the personality test. I downloaded a simple quick personality test with broad results and tweaked the questions to represent volunteering scenarios. I asked the volunteers to record their answers on their paper and then tally up their score. I then read the “results” according to the score ranges. For instance, those with a score within 10-20 were introspective while 90-100 were very outgoing.

But I added my own twist to the test results. I made up silly outcomes for each personality type based on volunteering with a patient or family member such as, “it is said that this personality type because of their bubbly personality ends up talking so much about their recent family cruise that the family member actually experiences seasickness.”

About halfway through the result reading, the shocked looks turned to laughter and relief. “Oh you got us,” the volunteers would say. But it wasn’t just for comedy relief. We then went on to discuss the different ways a well meaning volunteer could over step their boundaries and reiterated how to keep active listening in mind. Those were productive conversations.

One thing I did learn in years of training was that timing is everything. Acting wacky or introducing quirky subjects too soon destroys the trainer’s credibility. Once trust and sincerity is established, then comedy relief and diverse teaching methods will be much more readily accepted. The same goes for introducing deep subjects. Volunteers have to be ready in order to really digest profound information.

My barometer of a class’ comfort level was always predicated on the day the class got up and freely helped themselves to coffee and snacks while chatting warmly with one another. It usually took two sessions to establish that level of comfort and trust. (I always taught six 3 1/2 hour sessions for initial orientation).

But once that comfort level was achieved, then I could introduce really fun activities, and on the flip side, speakers with really deep and profound experiences to share. Classes laughed and cried, but only after we all felt really safe with each other. Honestly, those intimate moments with new volunteers are memories so precious to me, I can’t even begin to describe them. How fortunate I am to have them.

Yes, timing is everything. Volunteers look to us to illuminate the way and we should be honored to own that responsibility. Providing volunteers with deep meaning enhanced with light and laughter takes some sense of timing. But when you get it just about right, it fills your soul with the most amazing moments.

Training volunteers creates a bond with them from the very beginning. We neither have to be just ultra serious nor just silly and entertaining. We only need to make them comfortable and care that they learn and feel a part of our team. This sincerity paves the way for the information you want to present.

So, don’t be afraid to have some fun.(When the timing is right of course) Arrange your own two forks, create a personality test, make up an icebreaker and watch the magic happen!