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3 Icebreakers To Build Empathy Among Strangers Within 10 Minutes

The head of First Round’s Knowledge program shares how to skip the boring small talk and get to the stuff that matters faster.

3 Icebreakers To Build Empathy Among Strangers Within 10 Minutes
[Photo: rawpixel.com/Unsplash]

Anita Hossain, who leads the Knowledge program at First Round, is a fan of quick social and psychological icebreakers–the kind that help people understand themselves and each other fast. Over the past two years she’s led over 130 events for startup professionals to learn from each other at a deeper level. Hossain’s goal is to make in-person experiences–from large summits to more intimate gatherings–transformative no matter what.

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Here are a few 10-minute exercises Hossain recommends running through in networking events, conferences, team-building experiences, brainstorms, or group meetings that bring new acquaintances into contact for the first time. The goal is to launch into one of these icebreakers right after introductions, in order to encourage empathy, openness, and a willingness to share. Some of might sound silly, and it’s easy to be skeptical. But Hossain knows this–and after experimenting with dozens, she swears by their power to energize and unify. Here are her three go-tos:

1. The “I Am” Circle

Use this when you want people establish their commonalities. Have everyone stand in a circle with one person in the middle. That person says something that’s true about themselves. If it’s true of anyone else, they quickly have to switch places (like musical chairs).

Whoever doesn’t find a spot goes in the middle, and it repeats. “It generally starts off light, like ‘I’m the youngest,’ or ‘I have two kids’,” Hossain explains, “and then gets deeper and deeper until people are saying things like, ‘I have impostor syndrome,’ or ‘I grew up poor and have always felt less than.’ The movement is kinetic, and it generates a lot of empathy right off the bat between people who probably never met before.”

2. Tell Your Story Redux

This is a tactic Hossain picked up from the consultancy Innerspace. She uses it to break people out of stale narratives about their jobs and career arcs. First, have people turn to their neighbor and spend two minutes each recounting their life stories to one another. Then apologize, because you’re going to make them do it again. This time, ask them each to tell it in a way that’s totally different from the way they normally would.

“Usually, the first go at this is almost all about work. It’s an automatic script,” Hossain says. “People tell each other where they went to college and their paths through various jobs that got them to this moment. When forced to do something different, they immediately start sharing things they usually never would in a professional setting–and they get really into it.”

“They’ll talk about their childhood or why they actually transitioned jobs–they give the other person a peek behind the scenes of what happened,” she continues. “When we reconvene as a big group, we have a few people share what their partner changed about their narrative and why they found that interesting. It helps people feel like they got to know at least one person beneath the surface level.”

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3. Empathy Cards

Use this when you want people to share something very vulnerable, and realize they aren’t alone; it’s a technique Hossain learned from the coaching firm Reboot. During the cocktail hour, have everyone write anonymously on index cards one thing that worries them about their work or that causes them anxiety–something they feel like they can’t share with many people. Shuffle them thoroughly and place a card at each seat at the table. Ideally everyone receives someone else’s card, and can see that everyone else has fears and vulnerabilities just like them. It generates a ton of empathy and goodwill at the start of the conversation, and opens up candid sharing much earlier.

“We ran this exercise at our recent Founder Summit in New York, and we couldn’t believe how deep people went on these cards,” says Hossain. “One wrote, ‘I feel like I’m everyone else’s cheerleader, but no one is mine.’ Another said, ‘I’m thinking of giving up,’ and another said, ‘Every time I pitch poorly, I feel like I’m letting my entire team down.’ We had folks read out the card they received, so they could see around the room how many people clearly agreed or felt the same way. It was really powerful.”

In all of these exercises, the goal is to help people authentically connect and realize others share their experience, that they can let go and tell it like it is. “When we’re all saying that things are awesome, we’re not getting to the core of what’s difficult or finding the help we need,” says Hossain. “It just creates more distance. The best events events shrink that gap.”


A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.

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