5 Exercises That Break Down Barriers

5 Exercises That Break Down Barriers

How to get comfortable in a room full of strangers
Minnie Bredouw
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Walking into a room of strangers can feel daunting. Small talk is hard enough, and it’s even trickier to delve into deeper topics right off the bat. I chuckled when I found out that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a term for the realization that every person has a story as complex as yours. But how do you unlock those stories with someone you've just met?

Inspired by the New York Times’ piece on How to Fall in Love with Anyone, I reached out to my fellow IDEOers and asked about some of their favorite ways to break down barriers when meeting new people—especially in a group setting. They showered me with activity ideas.

Here are my top 5 favorite ways to break down barriers:

1. 3 Things in 3 Minutes

Everyone partners up with someone, ideally a person they don’t know well. Each pair has three minutes to discover three things they have in common that go beyond the obvious, like “We’re both in this room together,” or “We’re both wearing glasses.” After three minutes, everyone shares what they’ve learned with the group. Discoveries get pretty specific and have ranged from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit!”

2. Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Each person brings photos of their life (house, room, stuff, friends, etc.). The only rule is they can’t be in the images. When the group comes together, each person puts up their photos, and everyone has to guess whose life is whose. After each person is revealed, they have an opportunity to share a few components from their lives that are represented in the photographs.

3. Grouping Game

Create a series of categories that a group can use to organize themselves. They might be as simple as “cat person or dog person” or “Mac user or PC user,” or provide a bit more context about people’s background, such as “oldest, middle, youngest, or only child” or “religious or non-religious.” Once you have a handful of categories, call them out one-by-one, and have people form groups based on how they identify. For each round, have people ask one of the other questions of another group. By the end of the exercise, they will have been part of a dozen or so different “communities,” each comprised of a different set of people.

4. Acknowledgement Line

Have the group form two lines facing each other. Then, have them partner with the person they’re facing and take turns following these prompts (even if you know nothing about them):

  • What do you want to know about this person? (Curiosity)
  • What do you appreciate about this person? (Appreciation)
  • What do you want to share about yourself with this person? (Acknowledgement)
  • What can you contribute or give to this person? (Contribution)

5. Uniqueness Share

Each person takes turns sharing a fact about who they are or what they've done. If someone else in the room has done it before, then the person sharing needs to come up with another fact about themselves. So, if one person says, “I biked across the country,” and someone else says, “I’ve done that too!” then you would need find another fact, such as “I lived in Thailand.” Keep going until you find something that is truly unique about each person.

Any one of these exercises will help bring a feeling of common humanity into view. So, next time you enter a room full of strangers, save the cheesy icebreakers and admit that you’re a cat person instead.

Thanks to Mollie West Duffy, Neil Stevenson, Deirdre Cerminaro, Caryn Voskuil, and Heather Currier Hunt for their contributions.

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Minnie Bredouw
Minnie believes design should be a catalyst for conversation. Most of her work focuses on social impact challenges, especially as it pertains to education and youth. In her spare time, she teaches, writes, watercolors, and dabbles in nature photography.
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