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Icebreakers - Living Histories

Think back to the last team building event you attended. You were likely there with colleagues that you work day in and day out with, colleagues you speak to and email on a daily, if not hourly basis, colleagues you know… or do you?

There is a common misconception that the person we interact with on a daily basis is the whole person. On average we spend around 50% of our waking day at work (allowing for 8 hours of precious sleep) so does the half really equal the whole?


When you go home at the end of the day, do you give any thought to Laura in accounts or Martin in purchasing? 

I know I am guilty of it and I can’t be the only one – while I know Laura is doing a college course and heard Martin is renovating his bathroom, I don’t give a second thought to how this will affect their working day and more to the point how either of them ended up in the jobs they’re in.

After all, I’m a busy person with my own things to do and worry about.


Understanding your colleague’s personal battles, how they came to be and their raison d'être will enable you to work better together and hopefully enable improved interpersonal relationships among yourself and your colleagues – across the whole business.

This is where the Living Histories ice breaker comes in and allows honest sharing of as much information as the participant wants. When embraced, this ice breaker can illuminate why someone is the way they are. 

Each participant is given a sheet of A3 paper and told to put their timeline on it. Putting key points from their life on it – it can be as detailed as they like; it can start from birth, 18, 21 or their working life; it can include all professional points, all personal points or a mix of both.

Fundamentally it boils down to getting them to put themselves on a sheet of paper in the form of a timeline.

Once they’ve written it down, each person is given up to 5 uninterrupted minutes to talk through their timeline.


As icebreakers go this is quite involved and moves well beyond they clichéd “tell the person next to you 5 facts about yourself”. As such we would really only recommend this for groups of 10 or less.  

We’ve found it works best for cross-departmental team building events where there is less familiarity, but could equally be applied to single team where there is currently friction. 

The goal of this activity is to allow participants to look beyond the 50% of the person they see at work and understand their bigger picture.


We caught up with a couple of our attendees who have participated in this icebreaker during their separate team building days to see if they found it useful…

Selina, Area Sales Manager:

I was dreading our team building session.  There had been some conflict between myself and a colleague and the thought of having to spend the day in the same room as him was aggravating and frustrating.  We had judged each other based on a few short interactions, mostly arguing over who had what rooms on what days for our teams! 

We didn’t know each other.  

At our session we were asked to write our life timeline; timescale and detail was up to us.  Some people went in to very personal challenging issues of their past and others just focused on their professional career.  

What happened though changed our relationships.  

After listening to each other we realised that we had got each other wrong, we had a new found respect for each other.  We understood more about what had shaped us in to the people we were.  

We had a new respect for each other’s roles – we appreciated we were both under huge pressure.   Afterwards we ended up choosing to spend a day with each other developing potential managers. 
It was a changed relationship and this change lasted.

Neil, Marketing Executive:

My team building day started like any other, coffees in the foyer, making small talk with my colleagues. I didn’t want to be there. I was imagining my email inbox filling up with emails, emails I could be answering and taking care of.

Our team was headed up by a prickly Marketing Director who would quite often call you into his office, talk at you and then send you on your way. For all intents and purposes he was not a nice person to work for or with.

His timeline changed this.

We found out that he built himself up from nothing, undertook enormous self-learning and was up most mornings at 5:30am preparing his daughter’s lunch and ironing her uniform so he could wake her up and still be in the office by 7:30am.

We also found out that while he was our Marketing Director, he also served on a board of trustees for a charity helping kids via music. 

This somehow made it easier.

Because he was always prickly there was always the feeling that this was some form of slight towards me and me alone. What I came to realise though is that it was a mix of frustration from not spending more time with his daughter and probably feeling on his part that he has a million things to do and not enough time. 

My issues about advertising spend probably didn’t need any more of his time, than he gave.
It didn’t make it perfect…

…but it did make it easier to work with him.

Contact us here if you would like more information on our conference and trainnig facilities, or call us on 01494 881171

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