I once had a client (we'll call her Susan) who hated icebreaker exercises. "We have a lot to cover in this meeting," she'd say. "So please don't spend time doing touchy-feely teamwork-makes-the-dream-work activities."

Susan is a smart person, but she was wrong, according to Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human. Icebreakers and other getting-to-know-you activities promote better collaboration. Pink cites the research of psychologist Robert Cialdini, who's proven that "we're more likely to be persuaded by those whom we like. And one reason we like people is that they remind us . . . of us."

So, here are three simple exercises--sorry, Susan--to help meeting participants build connections so they'll work together more productively:

1. Where are you from?

Daniel Pink asks, "What's the best way to start a conversation--especially with someone you don't know well? How can you quickly put the person at ease, invite an interaction and build rapport?"

According to Pink, business consultant and author Jim Collins loves this opening question: "Where are you from?" 

"The wording," writes Pink, "allows the other person to respond in a myriad of ways. She might talk in the past tense about location ('I grew up in Berlin.'), speak in the present tense about her organization 'I'm from the Chiba Kogyo Bank.'), or approach the question from some other angle ('I live in Los Angeles, but I'm hoping to move.')."

Sounds good, but how do you turn this into an exercise? 

Simple. Get a large world map and attach it to the wall. Give participants color-coded Post-It notes; the ones shaped like arrows work well. Ask each participant to write his/her name on each sticker, then pin them on the map to indicate:

  • Where was I born? (blue)
  • Where did I go to school/college? (orange)
  • Where do I live now? (yellow)
  • Where do I work? (pink)
  • Where would I like to live? (green)

Once the map has been pinned, encourage people to share some of their responses and discuss their travels.

(The exercise works particularly well if you have a large group of people and they're from all over the . . . map.)

2. What do we have in common?

Geography is one aspect that unites (or divides us), but when people are given a chance, it's amazing how many things they have in common.

As Pink writes, "Finding similarities can help you attune yourself to others and help them attune themselves to you."

Pink's suggested exercise goes like this:

"Assemble a group of three or four people and pose this question: 'What do we have in common, either with another person or with everyone?' Go beyond the surface."

For example:

  • Does everyone have a younger brother? 
  • Have most people visited a Disney property in the last year?
  • Are some people soccer fanatics or opera buffs or amateur cheese makers?

"Set a timer for five minutes and see how many commonalities you can come up with. You might be surprised. 

Pink remarks that "we dismiss such things as 'small talk.' But that's a mistake. Similarity--the genuine, not the manufactured, variety--is a key form of human connection. People are more likely to move together when they share common ground."

3. What's on your resumé?

My firm often uses this exercise when working with people from the same department--for example, with internal communicators or members of the HR team. Even though these folks work together every day, it's amazing how much they don't know about each other. 

The exercise works like this. Distribute strips of paper or Post-It notes and ask participants to complete their "resume" by answering questions like these:

  • When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What was your minor in college (or other school)?
  • What's a special skill/talent you have that you don't use at work?
  • If you found yourself with a free weekend, how would you spend it?
  • If a venture capitalist offered to invest $500,000 so you could start a new business, what would you do?

Post responses on the wall (by category), then narrate what participants shared. Usually, people are surprised. For example, when we facilitated this exercise with one team, here is what team members said:

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

  • Roller derby queen (Rachel)
  • Medical doctor (Lori)
  • Teacher (Grace)
  • Pilot (Seema)
  • Writer (Doug)
  • Football player (Kevin)

What's a special skill/talent you have that you don't use at work?

  • Cooking (Rachel)
  • Artistic/creative (Lori)
  • Sewing (Grace)
  • Play piano (Seema)
  • Cleaning (Doug)
  • Napping (Kevin)

If a venture capitalist offered to invest $500,000 so you could start a new business, what would you do?

  • High-end home goods/clothing (Rachel)
  • Gelato and coffee shop (Lori)
  • Coaching practice or art gallery (Grace)
  • Farm (Seema)
  • Travel (Doug)
  • Restaurant (Kevin)

The time spent on icebreakers has value, says Pink, because "the ability to move people depends . . . on understanding another's person's perspective, getting inside his head and seeing the world through his eyes."

Want more exercises? Try these.