Would your team or organization be more effective if everyone knew everyone else?  Of course it would.  When co-workers know even a little about one another, they are more likely to speak up, ask questions and share ideas.  Don’t wait for your next “team-building event” to build relationships within your organization – use the first ten or fifteen minutes of your next meeting to break the ice and get people talking to each other. Here’s how:

Before-hand:

  • Set aside time.  This doesn’t need to take long, but it can’t be rushed.  Ten minutes is enough; fifteen is perfect.
  • Get clear about why you’re doing this.  The goal is connection more than content.  So long as people have a conversation, the exercise will be a success. 
  • Pick a few conversation-worthy questions:  What will you ask people to discuss?  I like to pose three questions: an introduction question, a question relevant to the meeting, and a question that helps people get to know each other.  See this list for some ideas.
  • Whom should people talk to?  My favorite approach is to say, “Stand up and find someone you know ‘less-well’…”  If time is short, it works to say, “Turn to someone sitting next to you…”  If folks are sitting at tables you can say, “Have a conversation at your table…”, but this takes longer!  
  • What will you ask them to do when they’re done?  People will want to know if they should take notes, or if there’s going to be a quiz.  Ease their fears by saying, “When you’re done, take a seat – and I’ll ask you a few questions about what you discussed.”

At the start of the meeting:

  • Give simple instructions:  the first time you do this, it’s going to catch folks off guard, so be sure to make the instructions clear.  Say, “Folks, I’d like us to do something different.  In a moment, when I say ‘go’, I’d like you to stand up, push in your chair and go find someone you know ‘less well’.  Start by introducing yourself, and then discus these two questions…  This is going to take about five minutes. When you’re done, have a seat and I’ll ask a few of you to share what you talked about.”
  • Repeat the instructions: you’ll be amazed at how often people fail to comprehend what you’re asking them to do! Say it again: “Is that clear?  Stand up, find someone you don’t know well, introduce yourself and talk about… Ok?  Alright: go!”
  • Move around the room and play matchmaker.  Show people you’re serious about this – if someone is wandering around, help them find a partner.  Make sure folks participate!
  • Listen in on conversations:  Don’t be shy about eavesdropping.  Listen for people laughing having an especially energetic conversation – call on them when you debrief the exercise.  Also, gauge when people are ready to wrap up and move on.
  • Ask folks to take a seat:  I try to end the conversation a bit early, rather than waiting too long and letting energy run down.  When you see folks begin to finish up say, “Ok!  Thirty-second warning!  Please finish up and have a seat!”

After people are seated:

  • Do a quick de-brief:  Call on three or four people by name and ask them,  “How did that go?  What did you talk about?”  Listen to what they say, thank them, and call on someone else. Consider asking, “Why is it useful to do something like this?  How can conversations like this help us?”   Doing this sort of public re-cap is important – it makes the exercise seem more meaningful and intentional. Don’t skip this step!
  • Thank people for participating!

It’s been said that “relationships are the foundation of accomplishment” but we often neglect relationship building. Whatever you and your team are up to (or up against), things will go better if everyone feels connection to everyone else.  Make communication, collaboration and conversation easier by breaking the ice at your next team meeting.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to get your people talking to each other?  We’re ready to help.  

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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