Whether you are facilitating a collaborative learning experience or a team working session, your first goal should always be to help your group connect. Without connection, collaboration is always more difficult and the result usually much less impactful.

Creating this type of connection in the short timeframes dictated by today’s corporate environment is challenging. But, thanks to human biology and the power of hormones, it is possible. In fact, anyone can achieve real connection among a group pretty quickly. All it takes is a stack of good photos and some well-crafted questions.

How Photos Create a Connection

Close your eyes. Think about looking at three photos: a roomful of people laughing and looking in the same direction, a young person helping an older person at a computer and a person sitting alone in a cemetery. Picturing these images instantly ignites emotions that cause the release of the hormones serotonin and oxytocin into the bloodstream. Dubbed the “connection-building hormones,” their potent blend makes us relate better to people, which makes us feel connected as human beings, which also makes us feel safer to trust.

How Connection Inspires Natural Collaboration

How can you quickly create this feeling of connection among any group in a learning setting? Simply have them use photos to communicate their thoughts and ideas with each other. When someone shares a photo to support thoughts and feelings, the emotions the photo evokes for that person quickly spreads to the group, creating a connection that, in turn, creates a feeling of safety. Feeling safe is important because, as explained by management theorist Simon Sinek in his 2014 TED talk, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” when a group feels connected and safe, collaboration ensues naturally.

Because photos help people communicate ideas faster and better, they also keep those ideas longer. In fact, research shows that after three days, we retain just 10 percent of what we hear but 60 percent of what we see. This statistic may be explained by additional research by 3M and the University of Wisconsin that found that using visuals affects the persuasiveness of a presentation.

Since images affect us quickly and stay with us longer, using them increases the chance of actually contributing to a measurable change in behavior, which is, after all, the goal of most facilitated training sessions. Finally, because the response is physiological, it happens immediately, regardless of language or cultural norms – a definite plus in today’s diverse workplace.

Ready to try using photos in your facilitation work? Here’s how.

Collect a lot of photos. A ratio of 10 photos per person is recommended. Be sure to find photos that will appeal to a variety of people and backgrounds. You can print your own images from one of the many copyright- and royalty-free stock photo collections online. If that’s too much, there are many facilitation photo card decks developed by and for professionals in the training industry. These professional decks usually have 200 or more photos, and some have facilitation guides. Display the photos around the room where people can see and choose their photos easily.

Frame the learning objective. Focus the group’s discussion by, for example, describing what effective leadership looks like.

Choose photos. Have each person select a photo or two that they feel illustrates what effective leadership looks like to them.

Share photos. Have each person share their photo, describing how it illustrates effective leadership and why they chose it. This step is where the magic happens. Once people start sharing their ideas and “whys” about the images, they begin to connect with one another, thanks to that immediate physiological response.

Identify emerging themes. Listen carefully as photos are shared. Note the themes that emerge, and ask insight-building questions that begin with “what,” “why” and “how” to invite specific, open-ended responses. Specifics are critical to deconstructing complex subjects and identifying themes that will help the learners turn their ideas into action items that they will be tasked with carrying out after the session.

When people connect, they relate to each other as equals, making them less protective of their own opinions and judgmental of the opinions of others. By using photos to create this sense of relatedness and connection, a facilitator can help people shift out of advocacy, where they are protective of their position, into inquiry, where they are open to the ideas of others. Inquiry is a state that is much more likely to uncover and nurture innovative, original and effective ideas.

A true triple threat, photos can help facilitators initiate the physiological response that can create the connection, persuasion and retention necessary for the natural collaboration that can lead to measurable behavior change and higher-performing teams.