Home With This One Question, You’ll Never Need an Icebreaker

With This One Question, You’ll Never Need an Icebreaker

Human connection is one of those things no company can exist without, but almost none understands how to create. One that does is 7:47, a dinner experience company that helps leaders create authentic connections with their customers.

To understand how 7:47 does it — with a single question, no less — I sat down recently to speak with Chris Schembra, its founder and chief question asker. Through trial, error, and more than a few tears, Schembra has developed a question that gets people who barely know one another to open up in deep, meaningful ways.

What’s that question, and how can you use it to build deeper relationships? Here’s Chris’ take:

Brad Anderson: Most companies use icebreakers, but many people can’t stand them. What value do you think they provide companies that conduct them with their customers?

Chris Schembra: At the end of the day, people buy from people, not from companies. If you want to set yourself apart from the competition, you have to connect on a human level.

Studies show that genuine, emotional connection cuts through the noise. Not only does that build loyalty, but it also creates new upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

That connection isn’t built through questions like “How’s the weather?” and “Where are you from?” When people are going through times of change, like they are now, they want more than surface-level interactions.

The challenge is, how do you create deeper, more emotional connection in such a short period of time? Icebreakers are designed to do that.

BA: At every dinner your company hosts, you ask the same icebreaker question: “If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life, that you don’t give enough credit or thanks to, who would that be?” Why that question? How do people typically respond?

CS: Not all icebreakers are created equal. We invented the one you mentioned as a way of creating what we call “third-party vulnerability.”

We stumbled on that question after asking things like “What’s your biggest fear?” and “What’s your biggest failure?” in small-group settings. Questions that focus on the self cause people to clam up, which keeps them from sharing openly and honestly.

What our gratitude question does instead is it gives people a platform to share a story about someone in their past. It asks them to recognize someone who helped them to get where they are today. They aren’t talking about themselves; they’re talking about the values of someone who greatly impacted their life.

Believe it or not, that third-party connection causes people to show more of themselves than if we’d asked directly about them.

BA: Connect those dots a little further for us: How does that response help people connect on a deeper level? How does that help companies?

CS: Let’s look at an example. Recently, I got to know Craig Elbert, founder and CEO of Care/of. Craig gave credit and thanks to his sister, who was openly gay in a small town. All of the values he saw in his sister inspired him to become the man he is today.

When I started talking to Craig about the values he stands for and his leadership style, it became clear he built his company around the values he learned from his sister without even realizing it. If I were trying to sell to Craig or forge a partnership with his company, I’d know exactly which values to touch on.

The most common person that people credit, though, is their mother. When we asked 4,000 people that question in a recent study, 22.58% thanked their mom. We’ve heard stories from people thanking their mother for raising them in a good way, for giving them up for adoption, and even for kicking them out on the street.

All of those are valid, valuable answers. Stories of regret, shame, personal liberation, overcoming fear — they all elicit real emotion, which gets us out of our shell. Google did a “From Promotion to Emotion” study that showed when B2B customers have a personal connection to a company, they’re almost 12 times more likely to buy and 30 times more likely to pay a premium.

Why is that? When people get to share stories, it’s like they have a spotlight on the stage. That builds loyalty and trust between a vendor and a customer because the vendor was the one who empowered them to shine.

BA: Most business leaders do not regularly eat dinner with their customers. Does that icebreaker work well in other settings, such as during an employee lunch? Why or why not?

CS: Gratitude isn’t something that people only express over dinner. In keynote presentations, at lunch-and-learns, and elsewhere, we’ve seen what a monumental impact that question has on people.

We can pull into town, give a 9 a.m. keynote presentation to a group of 500 employees, and make 15% of the audience cry. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

The setup is a little different than during dinner, but the results are the same. We ask people to stand up, switch seats, and then split them into groups of three.

I’ll show people how it’s done by bringing people on stage and asking them the question. To signal that it’s OK to share their emotions, I’ll ask follow-up questions for three or four minutes. Typically, I get them to cry on stage.

I’ll then give each group of three a chance to talk. While Person A answers the question, Persons B and C practice being good listeners. We tell them to be present, to avoid interrupting, and to ask deep questions once Person A is finished.  Then Person B goes, and Person C goes for 3-4 minutes. The whole thing takes about 15 minutes.

Afterward, I’ll let people decompress. I’ll invite a few random people from the audience up on stage to give their answer — to give credit to their grandmother who passed away recently to 300 of their peers, for example. That tends to bring up some deep stories.

Finally — and this is important — I’ll ask everyone to spend 2-3 minutes writing down the values that the person they named represents. I ask them to think about what those values say about their life today. How do they inform each person’s relationships, their leadership style, and their own values?

In some groups, I’ll collect that sheet and connect people based on the values they wrote down. Instead of connecting Bob and Sarah because they both play soccer, I’ll say, “Bob, you should meet Sarah because you both believe in vulnerability, honesty, and accountability.”

We didn’t do that final step of asking people to write down their values until half a year ago. It’s becoming what we’re known for, though.

BA: I can see how your icebreaker question might unlock some deep emotions. How can companies keep that sense of connection alive with their customers?

CS: Find more ways to listen to your customers. You’ll become better at picking up on the cues they give, which will make it easier to personalize the experiences you create for them.

What does that look like? Imagine an entrepreneur who gives credit and thanks to an uncle who used to bring his DJ equipment over during the holidays. Perhaps DJ’ing became that person’s first side hustle.

Think about what you’ve just learned. Not only does that entrepreneur love side hustles and love his uncle, but he also loves DJ’ing. Instead of inviting him to a sporting event, perhaps you should ask who his favorite DJ is and invite that person. Maybe also invite his uncle.

The greater point is that you need to express love in the way each customer wants to receive it, not the way you want to give it. Just because you like steak does not mean that all of your customers want to go to a steakhouse with you.

Gifting expert John Ruhlin taught me that. John doesn’t put his own name on gifts he gives to clients. He has companies fill out three-page surveys on their customers and give gifts based on what those customers want.

John uses the power of gifts to cut through the noise, increasing referrals and exposure. I give something different to the same end: How do you give the gift of belonging and community to your VIPs? The goal is the same: to create lasting, emotional connections between companies and their customers.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Brad Anderson
Former editor

Brad is the former editor who oversaw contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase.

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