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21 questions to get your team talking

two women in a business setting talking over coffee. one has an undercut, the other is young and wearing glasses and a sweater vest

One of the mistakes I make as a manager is skipping small talk. Since I’m only in the office with my colleagues 3 days a week, I value that face-to-face time and want to use it to collaborate, to make decisions, and to spend quality time with people.

But too often I focus too much on decision-making and not enough on quality time. Okay, and I feel kind of awkward making small talk.

People feel positive after small talk

It turns out, I’m not the only person who feels awkward about making small talk. Fortunately for me, Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago ran a series of experiments that asked strangers to predict whether they’d be happier after a bus or train ride in solitude or on one in which the made conversation, and then he made those conversations possible and resurveyed people.

It turns out that we’re poor predictors of what makes us happy. More people thought they’d find happiness in solitude on their commute, but it turns out the small talkers rated their commute time as more positive.

Lesson from the Trillion Dollar Coach

In Trillion Dollar Coach, a book about the practices of the legendary leadership coach Bill Campbell, the authors highlight the importance of early-in-the-meeting small talk, with a twofold benefit:

  • Team members get to know each other as people, with families and interesting lives outside of work
  • Everyone in the meeting gets involved from the beginning in a fun way

This way, by the time you’re reading to have a tough discussions or make a decision, everyone has already experienced the room as a place to open up.

The Trillion Dollar Coach recommends two ways to start small talk:

  1. Ask people what they did this weekend
  2. Has anyone traveled recently? Ask them for a trip report.

I don’t do either of those because sometimes recounting weekend plans feels performative. When you ask everyone what they did that weekend, they feel pressured to say something interesting lest people judge them for sitting around all weekend eating pancakes and watching the opening rounds of the Australian Open. Also, I started doing small talk with my team a few months before I read the Trillion Dollar Coach book.

The no-hassle way to start small talk

I use ice breaker questions to start my team’s weekly sync. Yes. ICEBREAKERS. I know, I can see the look on your face. You don’t want to think of the animal that best represents you or an activity that starts with the same letter as your first name. But hear me out: it’s not about the questions, it’s about the act of sharing information and giving each person a chance to speak.

Plus. the stakes (and perceived judgement) are much lower if the goal is to get your team debating the merits of buttercream vs. cream cheese frosting,

21 Questions of the Week

Use these questions to get started. Don’t worry, you won’t run out. Instead, ask your team for the questions they’d like to ask of their teammates and learn how they’d like to get to know each other better.

  1. What’s the best cupcake? Frosting?
  2. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be, and why?
  3. If you should live inside of any TV show (comedy or drama), which one would it be?
  4. If you could eliminate one thing from your daily routine (it would just magically be done) what would you eliminate and why?
  5. What is your most used emoji?
  6. If you could see one movie again for the first time, which one and why?
  7. What subjects should be taught in school but aren’t?
  8. What is your cellphone lockscreen? Wallpaper?
  9. If you could choose any person from history to be your imaginary friend, who would it be and why?
  10. What pets did you have growing up? (or wish you had?)
  11. What fictional world or place would you like to visit?
  12. Would you rather travel back in time to meet your ancestors or to the future to meet your descendents?
  13. What’s your favorite time of day (weather, temp, etc)
  14. In your dream house, what is one element you would include that nobody else in this room would choose?
  15. If you were a UX superhero, what would your name be?
  16. What fictional family (from TV, movies, books, comics) would you want to be a member of?
  17. Do you collect anything?
  18. If you could magically become fluent in any language, which one would it be?
  19. If you had to wear a hat every day for the rest of your life, what type of hat would it be?
  20. If you were an Olympic athlete, what sport would you compete in?
  21. Are you a cat person or dog person (or neither?)

By Abi Jones

Abi Jones is the UX Manager for Imaging & Diagnostics in Google Health. She leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers and designers focused on using artificial intelligence to assist in diagnosing cancer and preventing blindness.

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