The Gordian Knot and The Human Knot

The Gordian Knot and The Human Knot

Have you ever heard of the “Gordian Knot?” Legend says that it was an incredibly complex knot designed to connect a rope to an oxcart in ancient Rome. In fact, it was so complex that it was said that whoever could untie the knot would be destined to rule all of Asia. In 333 BC, Alexander the Great was challenged to untie the knot. Can you guess what happened? Let’s come back to that in a minute.

While not an actual knot tied with a rope, the Human Knot is classic teambuilding exercise that has been used for many years in classrooms, camps, youth groups, and countless other types of small groups. The set up goes like this. Instruct five to twelve people to stand shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle facing towards the middle. Then, have all group members extend their arms into the middle of the circle and clasp hands with two DIFFERENT people’s hands, who are NOT standing next to them. The simple, but difficult task is for the group to unravel the knot or knots that are created without letting go of anyone’s hands. Upon successful completion, the entire group will unravel themselves back into a circle, still clasping hands. Common added challenges can include giving the group a time limit to complete the activity, having two or more groups competing against one another to solve the riddle first, and/or blindfolding one or more members of the group (perhaps one of the leaders to allow opportunity for a different leader to emerge). There are a few reasons why this activity is such a classic. First, it requires significant emotional and social skills to work together to solve the challenge. Also, the group must communicate effectively, support one another physically, and be persistent in the face of disappointment or failure. Those same skills are critically important to navigate difficult circumstances in academics, sports, families, and life in general. The activity provides a great metaphor for discussion of overcoming just those kinds of challenges in the “real world.” While the physical contact can be uncomfortable for some, most kids and adults will be motivated to solve the challenge, despite the awkwardness. Common debriefing questions include “How are the challenges you faced today similar to those you encounter at home/school/work/sports/etc.?” How were these challenges different? What strategies did you try to unravel the knot? What strategies have you tried in school/at home/on the field/in the gym/etc.? What strengths allowed you to have success here today and how could you use similar strengths to help you overcome challenges elsewhere in life? Though the groups are small and they solve the challenge rather quickly, here is a link to a youtube clip of a facilitator laying out the guidelines and several groups working to solve the Human Knot:

The Human Knot is almost always considered an “icebreaker activity.” An “icebreaker” is typically considered a brief activity that energizes and primes a group for a more difficult and perhaps more meaningful task. Having facilitated this activity literally hundreds of times, I respectfully disagree. Icebreakers should allow opportunity for 100% positive participation and, ultimately, lead to group success. In my experience, the success rate on the Human Knot is maybe 70-80% without offering hints, lifelines (like a free hand release or two), and, on a rare occasion, the knot is technically unsolvable. And the larger the group, the more difficult the task. Not only that, but the conversation based on the activity is the most meaningful aspect of the activity. If the directions and challenge take an average of 5-10 minutes, the conversation based on the activity should be at least twice that long in therapeutic contexts. 15-30 minutes is a very long time for an icebreaker in most settings. For a counselor, one of the most difficult aspects of engaging a group in a meaningful conversation is engagement from all group members. An activity like this absolutely primes a meaningful conversation with everyone included, but I find that too often, the conversation just gets skipped over to move onto something else, relevant or not. Even when the group fails at solving the task in spite of much effort, consider how that is similar to challenges in life – sometimes we succeed, other times we do not. Remember the story of the “Gordian Knot” from the beginning? Based on that legend, any unsolvable puzzle, riddle or task is now known as a “Gordian Knot.” It happens in this activity and, if you are anything like me and most others, life provides us with plenty of unwinnable challenges. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in the struggle and even meaning in a defeat. Student-athletes learn these lessons quite well on the field and in the gym, but far too many kids go through their developmental years without the benefits of these kinds of foundational experiences. Whether groups are able to solve them or not, some of the most difficult aspects the challenge are getting stuck and dealing with discomfort.

If you’ve ever done this activity, you likely recall your arms twisting in ways they shouldn’t, awkwardly climbing over and under others, and being frustrated with the group trying things that aren’t working and perhaps asking you to do things that you are confident will not work. Let me offer those challenges again: Getting stuck and dealing with discomfort. I wonder if you ever feel this way in your professional life. Consider the similarities for a moment. You are part of a team who must work together to overcome significant challenges, deal with considerable discomfort, manage feeling stuck, and try not to step on each others’ toes in the process. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps too familiar? Maybe some of you are thinking that your faculty or staff needs to get into small groups to do the Human Knot at an in-service or training and then have a good heart-to-heart conversation. Well, maybe so. But perhaps that isn’t always necessary either. What strategies have helped you manage frustration or get unstuck in the past? Better yet, what strategies have other people in your field used to manage frustration and/or get unstuck? My amazing pastor from several years ago and good friend – Ryan May – shared this little gem in one of his sermons – “Being Smart is learning from your mistakes. Being Wise is learning from someone else’s.”  You are listening, watching, or reading this message voluntarily so that is precisely what you are doing – seeking to learn with and from others. Keep it up – that is the solution! And then be ready to share what you have learned with those around you.

But whatever happened to Alexander the Great anyway? How did he fare against the “Gordian Knot?” Well, instead of taking hours or days to meticulously untangle the rope, legend says that he rather dramatically pulled out his sword and cut through the knotted rope with one mighty swing. That story reminds me of that classic scene from Indiana Jones who faces off against a master swordsman and, with a smirk, simply pulls out his pistol and shoots his adversary. Here is the link to that scene as well:

There are probably some valuable lessons we could draw from Indy’s and Alex’s blunt, but perhaps ingenious solutions as well, but let’s leave that for another day.      

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