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Career Skills: Do's and Don'ts of Ice Breakers

The leader’s request made everyone in the room tense. We were 20 strangers, at the start of a weekend retreat.

"Tell us something," the leader said, "that you don't want us to know about you."

The person next to me muttered, "Why would I ever do that?"

I was tempted to jump in. "I was the worst person," I could confess, "on my high school tennis team."

This was technically true. I was #12. And I'm not even sure there were 11 other players. But that's not what the leader wanted. So I stayed silent, as did others.

Let's talk about ice-breakers.

Businessman breaking ice
Nemanja Sekulic | Vetta | Getty Images
Businessman breaking ice

Most groups—even two-person ones, like you and your next-door neighbor—go through predictable stages of development.

The beginning stage feels like a bad first date—people act polite and reasonable, while inwardly feeling, "Get-me-out-of-here."

The leader's job is to get you out of that stage before you get stuck there.

Ice-breakers can help—or backfire.

As the leader, you want people to reveal something important, without risking too much. I call this the Reveal/Risk ratio; the higher the ratio, the better.

Let's critique a few openers:

1) "What name would you like if you couldn't have yours?"

Critique: low Reveal, low Risk. Everyone speaks (that's good), but no one says anything significant (that’s bad).

2) "Give us two facts about you, and one lie" (group then guesses the lie).

Critique: medium Reveal, low Risk. I've used this opener a few times, with ok results.

But some people object to lying, even in fun.

And then there's the participant who says: a) I like to bake brownies; b) I married my high school sweetheart; c) I just escaped prison.

And others in the group will always wonder about that prison thing.

3) "Introduce yourself with an adjective that begins with the same letter as your first name" (e.g. "Hi everyone! I'm Neurotic Ned”).

Critique: medium Reveal, medium Risk. Not recommended—too complicated.

The last time I was subjected to this, I couldn't think of a good adjective for Paul, so I mentioned a nickname from high school: Peerless.

That's what my doubles partner on the tennis team called me. But I don't think he was being complimentary.

Tip: Keep your ice-breakers real, but low-risk. For example, ask people about their hopes and fears—for the meeting, or for the team.

Even less risky: start in pairs. Or start with a neutral topic, like lunch. "I hope for Caesar salad; I fear meatloaf."

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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