Set up & instructions
Be aware that the activity involves close physical proximity and touch
potentially in sensitive places! It can be used as a first activity
in an adventurous program with volunteers (e.g., the start of an Outward
Bound program). However, if the program is less adventurous, or
group members potentially will have significant problems with such
proximity, e.g., due to culture, or social or psychological problems, then
Human Knot could be introduced later in a program.
Ideal group size is approximately 10, but it can be done with anywhere
from about 7 to 16. Much higher or lower and the task doesn't really
work. The more in a group, the more difficult the task, partly
because of the complexity, and partly because there is physically less
room to move.
If there are two or more groups doing the task simultaneously, have the
groups reasonably spaced out, so they don't feel distracted by a sense of
Ask participants to form a circle, shoulder-to-shoulder.
Encouraging/urging participants to all stand closer can be a subtle way of
helping to prepare them for what is about to come.
Ask participants to each place a hand in the middle of the circle and to
grasp another hand.
To emphasize learning of names and get a bit of fun going, ask
participants to introduce themselves to the person they are holding hands
Then ask participants to put their other hand in the middle, grasp a
different person's hand, and introduce themselves.
Don't let participants let go of hands - some will be tempted to think the
activity might then be over - but it is only just starting.
Explain to participants that what you'd like them to do is untangle
themselves, without letting go of hands, into a circle.
There will be a mixture of reactions, often including nervous laughter,
fun amusement, excitement, trepidation, strong suspicion that it can't be
done, and others who may view the task as a somewhat sadistic or
inappropriate joke. Often some group members will have done the task
before, but this doens't really matter, each time the task is unique.
Participants may change their grip so as to more comfortable, but they are
not to unclasp and re-clasp so as to undo the knot.
If you want name-learning emphasized, then explain that whenever the group
is talking to someone, or about someone, that the person's first name must
be used. This usually requires supervision and reinforcement by the
instructor, but once enforced, is excellent for learning names. It
also usually helps the group to work together and find solution, because
their communications and more accurate with names involved.
Stand back and see what happens.
Be prepared to see little progress for quite some time (up to 10 minutes).
However, once the initial unfolding happens, the pace towards the final
solution usually seems to quicken.
However, because each occasion is unique, there are also odd times when a
very fast solution falls out - too easy. In such cases, you ask a
group to try the task again - its usually a bit harder second time around.
Occasionally, the task seems too hard and participants seem to make almost
no progress. Let them struggle for about 10 minutes, then you can
offer the group one unclasp and reclasp - they need to discuss and decide
what unclasp-reclasp would be most useful.
Most of the time a full circle falls out, but occasionally there are two
or even three interlocking circles. So, really the task is to sort
the knot out into its simplest structure.
A switched-on facilitator can get a lot of information about participants
in a short space of time with this activity. For this reason, the
activity is commonly used in group-based selection processes for jobs
which involve closely working with others.
Stay at a moderate distance, allowing the group to handle the activity
with feeling like they're being too closely observed; but maintain good
hearing contact and be ready to step in to help answer questions or change
the direction of the activity quickly when appropriate.
Slowly wander around the circle, moving in and out as appropriate, e.g.,
if you want people to use names in every communication, then this needs to
reinforced in a friendly, but firm way, several times.
It is relatively easy to notice who's talking, who's not, who seems
comfortable, who doesn't. Also note that sometimes the natural
leaders are not in a good position to lead - do they try to dominate
inappropriately or do they sit back appropriately and just do what they
can. Sometimes, a new leader emerges from being in an opportune
position in the knot. This can offer this person a significant
boost. Also, almost everyone gets a positive sense of having played
his or her part. Some people have difficultly enjoying the activity
due to their uncomfortableness physically (e.g., obese, very tall, or
inflexible people may find the activity particularly awkward).
It is important to provide appropriate help if the activity proves too
difficult. This might be encouragement that it can be done (some
groups lack confidence and would give up too early), helping a couple of
people communicate to find a solution to part of the knot, etc. Or
this might be allowing an unclasp-reclasp. How much to give is a
fine balancing act. The task should be challenging, but especially
as an initial activity, it should give the group some initial confidence
and momentum in being able to work together to solve problems.
Often this activity speaks for itself as an icebreaker. However,
because it can be quite challenging, and people will often have been
pulled in all sorts of directions (literally), be prepared to have at
least a short debrief, e.g. by asking "How well did you think the group
worked together?" and "What could have been done differently?" or
"What do you think you've learned from this activity which can be applied
in future activities?"
Links to other descriptions of Human Knot
Human Knot - Short description from drama improvisation warm-up
Knot - Moderate length, standard description from Indiana Principal
Human Knot - with an "environmental" metaphor
Human Overhand - an interesting variation, involves putting lengths of
rope between people and then getting them to tie a knot in the central
piece of rope without letting go [www.firststepstraining.com]