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How to hold an intangible gift exchange

Profile picture for user Alexandra Korey
by Alexandra Korey
gift exchange
“In an intangible gift exchange, there’s value in your own superpowers and the stories you tell around them.”

Last month in Barcelona, shemakes partners met for the first time; this project was born in the Covid era so we’ve been working together remotely, and very smoothly, for a whole year! To break up a series of meetings, some of our partners led workshops that served to either gather information or practise formats to be used later in the project. One of these workshops, that we’d like to share with you today, is the “shemakes gift exchange”.

None of us really knew what to expect when we got a message from Adriana, our partner at Matrix, saying there would be a gift exchange focusing on our tangible and intangible skills, so some people brought actual gifts, some of us brought something we made to show, and some of us who work less with our hands and more with digital or thoughts simply brought ourselves. It turns out that in an intangible gift exchange, what counts is your own superpowers.

Adriana conceived this workshop as part of the knowledge transfer that is going to take place in the first months of 2022, when the newly selected ambassadors will meet with the new transfer labs and be guided by gurus from the existing labs to integrate shemakes activities in their own communities. When this diverse group meets for the first time, a workshop like this will be used to break the ice and get to know each other. But it goes deeper than this. The activity has been conceived to support and to identify the key and contribution (or gift) that people can bring to any situation of collaboration. It turned out to be one of the most valuable and memorable moments of our time together, helping us to get to know each other more deeply with the potential of a stronger network and positive change both in our personal lives and in the project.

When and with whom can you do an intangible gift exchange?
group working on gift exchange

group working on gift exchange

Taking the intangible gift exchange out of the context of shemakes, we think it could be helpful in a range of situations. We’re publishing this before the December break thinking it could be in lieu of a normal holiday gift exchange if you’re running late on that. But really, it could be held at any time of year when you have a group of people who will be working together. It can also be used to deepen knowledge of the personalities and skills of a group of friends or colleagues who have known each other for a while.

How many people should participate in the gift exchange? It depends how you structure the activity or rather, how complex you make it through the questions and activities you pose to the participants. Time is also a factor: you need to leave enough time for each person to present. We were about 20 people and we dealt with a few too many issues in too little time. For a group of 15-20 people you might leave 2 hours for the activity, while a dozen people could do it in less time. An ideal group would be more than 10 people who don’t know each other well, and fewer than 30.

In the project, we’re using this dynamic to strengthen the network and understand how we can collaborate and support each other with the analogy of fibres and textiles that weave stronger fabrics, so we’ve dubbed the activity the "shemakes gift weave". 

How to do an intangible gift exchange
Colours matching personality

Colours matching personality

There are a series of steps we’ve established to help people identify and communicate their unique gift, and then “weave” it together as a community. You can instruct people to do all the steps in your intangible gift exchange or make it simpler and more informal by doing just the first step.

What you will need

  • Four colours of yarn
  • Four colours of post-its
  • Pin board and pins
  • Pens or markers
  • Room with space to move around, and a projector to present the concept (if you wish).

Steps of the gift weave

  1. Identify your gift. Ask people: What is your unique contribution to the world? It might be a hard skill (like knowing how to cross-stitch or being good at creating complex excel tables) or a soft skill (like being good at getting everyone to agree). People might be asked this question in advance so they can think about the best way to present it, and bring an object or example if that’s relevant.
  2. What’s the story behind your gift? Skills don’t come from nowhere. Perhaps your skill is a traditional weaving technique from your community, that you learned from a great aunt. Or your skill is photography because it was your father’s hobby. The way we become the way we are, the way we learn our most important skills, superpowers or gifts, is all part of a story, and the story is always interesting to other people who want to get to know you better. A good story may stem from different stages of your life (like “when I was a little girl, I was shy), and perhaps it will include a challenge you’ve overcome, a need you’ve solved or an opportunity you’ve taken.
  3. What’s your group personality trait? To help people express their superpowers and form a stronger network, we thought of the main ways that people contribute to group exchange. They may define themselves as being: an energizer, a listener, a decision maker, the sidekick, or particularly experienced. You can ask people to write this trait on a post-it with their name. Knowing how people interact in a group can help you create balanced smaller working teams, for example.
  4. What colour represents your personality? Starting from the four colours of shemakes, the colour expert in our team set out four standard profiles of personality types (usually the colours used are red, blue, white and yellow but we modified them a bit). With our colours we defined people who tend to be intimate, powerful, peaceful and fun. We used yarn to visualize these traits, which of course can be all present in a single person, so some of our participants made twists or braids of their different traits using the coloured yarn.

As people define elements from these steps, ask them to write post-its and pin them to a pin-board. Then, use yarn to “weave” connections between people, thinking about needs, desires or potential collaborations. For example, in our group, a very creative person with numerous skills connected herself to a person who defined herself as a powerful decision maker, because the first woman found it hard to make decisions and organize her path.

Finally, ask people to share their gifts and stories one by one. If possible, create a relaxed situation for this – in a circle or on couches – and make sure to leave plenty of time so everyone can talk. Ensure that it is a safe space and encourage everyone’s gifts without comment.

Personality superpowers

Personality superpowers

What does the intangible gift exchange reveal?
Adriana presenting the gift weave

Adriana presenting the gift weave

This process helps us explore the following things about people.

  • The gift: a unique contribution that each person believes they bring to the situation (be it a project, a community etc.). This may be told as a story or shown as an artefact, like childrens “show and tell”.  
  • Peoples stories: by sharing your “gift”, you usually tell a story of how you became that way, how you learned the skill or formed the habit that you consider your gift. In this way we get to know each other better, we connect and empathize across audiences.
  • Personality: we asked people to pick the colour that represents how they imprint their day to day life. This tends to represent their personality and emotional state. Knowing this is both practical (to see who in a group defines themselves as a leader, or a team player, or an emotive type) for creating synergies in a group, and contributes to an empathetic understanding of the person as a whole.

We believe that every person can contribute something on a personal level with their motivation, commitment, competencies and skills and on a community level by sharing values and skills with a greater network. By exchanging these contributions through this exercise we weave a strong network, create synergies and change the way we communicate. That’s why shemakes aims to promote the growth of leaders who lead with confidence, respect, and courage, which are the values we hope will support the community's development with positive changes.