we did a trauma-dumping ice-breaker at a work retreat

A reader writes:

I work for a company that has ~40 people and we gather annually in person. We are otherwise a hybrid organization. We are very open about mental health struggles and work/life balance, and that comes from our leadership. I’m incredibly grateful to work in an organization like this. Last year I had a pretty traumatizing family medical situation that went on for months and resulted in one of my parents passing away. I know others on the team have had similar recent experiences (some ongoing).

At our recent gathering, we had an ice-breaker in which we were asked to share a challenging or unique personal experience from childhood or adulthood that shaped who we are today. Some of our leadership team kicked off the discussion with examples of fertility challenges, mental health breakdowns, parents dying, arrests, etc. Very rock-bottom items that I feel privileged to know about, and certainly bring us closer together. However, being in a room with 40 people, some of whom I’ve just met, and asked to share something of this caliber felt off to me. I wound up sharing something from childhood much less sensitive than many of my coworkers and steered clear of any true traumatic items (and noticed a few others dealing with current traumas doing the same thing). I don’t think anyone truly felt coerced here, but given the large size of the group this just felt off and I found myself having a big emotional response to the exercise.

I want to bring up to our event organizers that we might want to be more careful about warning people they’ll be dropped into this highly emotional discussion, or doing it in smaller groups, or … I’m not really sure. But having this as a required event that was billed as just an ice-breaker felt wrong to me. Any advice? Am I just having a strong response to something normal because I’m still processing my own traumatic thing? I spoke to one other coworker who felt the same way as I did, but I know a number of other folks said this was the highlight of the retreat for them.

This isn’t an appropriate ice-breaker for a work event.

While some people may have found it meaningful, that’s trumped by the people who will find it violating or upsetting.

Many people had “challenging and unique personal experiences” in childhood that will forever shape who they are as adults, and those experiences may be deeply painful and private. Sure, they could pick something anodyne to share, but why put them on the spot with that question at work? It’s cruel, frankly, and it sounds like the brainchild of someone who hasn’t thought much about the wide range of experiences they might be stirring up in people.

Moreover, beyond the obvious problems with being urged to share your own trauma, it’s also not okay to force employees be a captive audience to hearing other people’s. To give an easy personal example, as someone with a terminally ill parent who just got some bad news on that front, I sure as hell don’t want to be made to listen to other people’s stories of parents dying right now, particularly in a work context where I’m trying to hold it together.

And really, people who want a deeply intimate experience with trauma sharing are welcome to join any number of groups centered around that — which are generally organized with the help of trained therapists for a reason. It doesn’t belong at work with a captive audience of people whose income depends on them being there.

Presumably the purpose of this exercise was to set people up to have productive work conversations afterwards, but I guarantee you some people there were upset, distracted, shaken, or otherwise not in an optimum place to move on to work topics.

Please point all of this out to the event organizers and ask that they not repeat it.

{ 363 comments… read them below }

    1. Bananapantsfeelings*

      That whole letter was like sprinting through a line of red flags. None of this is normal, OP. None of this is healthy. None of this is respectful.

  1. Dawn*

    Nothing to add, just wanted to say, my condolences for your personal circumstances, Alison.

    1. Part time lab tech*

      My best wishes for you and your family too. If you need to take a break, I know most of us would understand.
      As someone who had a parent with cancer, please give yourself grace and take breaks.

      1. HoundMom*

        Sending your family a virtual hug. Your Mom sounds amazing but that is no wonder as she raised you.

        1. Brain Flogged*

          Same. And remember the nieces? Alison was not the only great human that great human raised.
          She is and will be cherish for people well beyond her reach.

      2. Laura*

        Alison, y’all are in our thoughts right now. I’m sorry you are going through this.

    1. Jellybean_Thief*

      Same here. I am so sorry to hear this. My mom also had pancreatic cancer; I’m sorry you’re walking this road. You are both in my thoughts.

    2. ICodeForFood*

      Same here… Hang in, Alison, and sending good thoughts to you and your mom.

      1. Calyx*

        Thinking of you and your family, Alison. Watching a parent go through cancer treatment or hospice, knowing it’s terminal, is a somber experience.

      2. newly retred*

        Yes, Alison, sending you and your mom and your family love and light in this hard time.

        1. Orange*

          Thinking of you and your family Alison. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

    3. Exhausted Trope*

      Went through this as well. So incredibly hard. Love and good thoughts to you, Alison.

    4. Once too Often*

      Joining the chorus of good thoughts for your mom, you, & your whole family.

    5. Syzygy*

      Thinking of you, Alison, and your mom and your family. Your mother sounds wonderful. o sorry you are going through this

    6. Lbd*

      Walking this road with a parent at the end of their live is a challenging one. Allison, I hope that you, your mom, and family, are able to find some comfort in the journey.

    7. A mathematician*

      Also echoing the good thoughts to you and your family. I also have a terminally ill parent, and the news is not looking good, and it’s hard.

  2. Peanut Hamper*

    Being open and supportive is one thing. This is not it. This is bizarrely invasive and intrusive.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      As far as I’m concerned, being supportive at the workplace = providing good time off policies, a solid EAP, and making it easy to get reasonable accommodations for physical/mental disabilities. Not having a trauma dump circle.

      1. Betty*

        Yes. I’d actually argue that in general, “no questions asked, you don’t need to tell us anything you’d prefer to keep private” is MORE supportive than “you must trauma dump”. “I’m dealing with a family medical situation, so I’m hoping to work intermittently and remotely for 4-6 weeks while I’m out of town supporting my family member” is much better than having to get into all the details of the noise level/wifi stability of various surgical waiting areas/hospice facilities/what have you for your particular situation.

        1. JustaTech*

          For the people you are working *very* closely with, there’s some value to more specificity – I used to have a coworker who had suffered a Traumatic Brain injury (TBI) as a result of a car accident. While a lot of the specifics she shared were verging into TMI (for me), it was very useful to know things like “Christina doesn’t feel hunger anymore, so she may need someone to remind her that she’s an hour late for lunch so she doesn’t pass out from low blood sugar” or “Christina uses more energy getting around life than the average non-disabled person, so if there’s something really complex/sensitive you need her to do, ask about it first thing in the morning when she has the energy”.

          But those are work-related pieces of information, and were shared by someone who possessed no filter, and so were her choice to share. It’s not something I would ever expect to be *asked* to share in a work setting.

      2. The Bigger the Hair…the closer to god*

        How does any of this help the company, the clients, the employees, the bottom line? Seriously, if this is the “ice-breaker”, what else is on the agenda? How does this data/personal information motivate people to support the company’s mission. So agree with the point that without professional support, this could be a dumpster fire just waiting to happen.

        Aren’t ice-breakers supposed to be light, airy, get-to-know your colleagues kind of interaction? This seems overly intrusive and potentially dangerous!

      3. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Sharing challenging experiences, and finding that others have had similar experiences, can bring team members closer together, no doubt. I have a great team and believe we are a supportive, caring group as a whole. But I agree with WPX, this kind of support at work is not a substitute for a solid EAP and benefits package, which I am grateful to have.

        The decision about what to share and when is deeply personal. As much as I dislike Two Truths And A Lie, I’d rather deal with that kind of ice-breaker than revelations of personal, maybe traumatic information in a team meeting.

    2. CH*

      This activity, the “personal histories” exercise, is one from the “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” book that is pretty popular among a variety of leaders. The purpose is to build trust on the team. I’ve done this exercise once with a small group of 6 as a participant and did find it to be useful in building trust and humanizing some of my colleagues. I don’t think it is a good idea to do it in such a large group, especially without the context of understanding why you are being asked for the story or how sharing it would contribute to a more trusting team environment.

      1. JustaTech*

        Right! And also with a lot more guidelines one what *kind* of story everyone is being asked to share. Because some people are very willing to share incredibly traumatic stories that make other people very uncomfortable.

        Also, if everyone else has shared a really traumatic story and you don’t have one, then at least some people will think that you’re just holding out on them and start relentlessly prying. Or treat you like you’re stuck up because you were luck enough to not have a horrifying childhood. (Not to speak from personal experience or anything.)

        1. Rat Racer*

          I’d like to second this! I don’t see anything inherently wrong with the exercise except perhaps that the organizers should have given guidance about what is/not appropriate to share. I’d also recommend giving people advance notice so that they have time to think through a work-appropriate anecdote to bring to the ice-breaker.

          But as I type this, I recognize that I may be bringing in my personal bias. Whenever people share their pain – even if it makes me momentarily uncomfortable and unsure of what to say – I am always glad for the human connection (and also grateful that for once I am not the one who is over-sharing, which frequently happens to me by accident). My biggest concern would be that I’d use the ice-breaker as my own personal “Moth Story Hour” and then spend the rest of my life cringing and/or having to quit my job and move to a new city.

          1. Irish Teacher.*

            I think it’s inherently wrong as an icebreaker. As something like a group therapy activity, it may have value, but an icebreaker is meant to be just a quick thing to relax people and I don’t think any “challenge that shaped who you are” is something relaxing to mention quickly.

            And it sounds like they did give guidance on what they thought appropriate to share and specifically said that it should be stuff like fertility struggles, bereavements, etc.

            I don’t think it’s inherently problematic to mention such things at work but I do think it is inherently problematic to begin an icebreaker by specifically asking for such things.

            To be honest, I think icebreakers are overused anyway. If a group knows each other well and there isn’t any “ice,” there is no point to them. If a group knows each other well and there is ice, well, you’ve got a bigger problem and that won’t be solved by asking people to name their favourite holiday or whatever. In a group who are strangers, it can have a purpose in making people feel a bit more comfortable with each other and like they know something about the other people there without getting in to anything too personal…which this exercise completely misses.

            An icebreaker is meant to be an introductory thing, something you’d tell a complete stranger, not something really deep.

            1. Rat Racer*

              Huh – I read the letter differently. My interpretation was that the leadership kicked off the icebreaker with deeply personal stories, which then set an inappropriate tone and expectation that everyone else would follow suit. It doesn’t sound like there was any explicit instruction to share deeply personal or traumatic events. If the event host had given more guidance from the get go, perhaps leadership would have set off on better footing.

              Again, you either love icebreakers or you hate them. I hate most of them, but prefer exercises where people have discretion about how they participate. I was once compelled to sing in front of my colleagues as part of an icebreaker, and I have never gotten over the embarrassment. (For the record, what was embarrassing was less my singing, and more my own reluctance to do it, which prompted my boss to announce, “Rat must just have low self-esteem” to the all the other directors in the room. She was/is a horrible person.)

      2. Anon for this*

        What I need to trust co-workers is my day-to-day experiences of working with them.

        Knowing their stepfather beat them when they were a child doesn’t add anything.

      3. WillowBee*

        I am not sharing my personal trauma to persuade you to see me as a human being, and the idea that you think I should have to is horrifying.

        1. Anon for this*

          Exactly. Seeing one’s colleagues as human beings should be the default, not something people have to earn by sharing some sufficiently traumatic history.

        2. ArtsNerd*

          I strongly believe this exercise isn’t appropriate in the workplace, but I also think you’re taking an unnecessarily negative interpretation of CH’s explanation. It’s not “humanize” as “see you as a human” it’s “humanize” as … ugh, I can’t find a good way to phrase this…. “see a fuller picture of your specific experience of humanness” … something like that. There are better ways of going about that, for sure.

          1. CH*

            Thank you, ArtsNerd, for understanding my comment the way I intended.

            I wasn’t saying that I don’t view my coworkers as human – that interpretation is pretty harsh. What I was alluding to is that we all have coworkers that we just can’t or don’t connect with, and this activity helped me to relate to my coworkers on a more personal basis, which on a trusting team creates empathy and understanding and discourages unfair and inaccurate behavioral attributions… which seems to have happened to us right now, for example.

            Further, the activity I referenced has nothing to do with sharing traumatic histories. The book proposes a team go around a table and answer a short list of questions about themselves. It specifically then states “questions need not be overly sensitive in nature and may include the following: number of siblings, hometown, unique challenges of childhood, favorite hobbies, first job, and worst job.”

            Regardless of the thoughts on my own humanity, my intention was to share a personal case where I did find this type of activity to be helpful in building trust and understanding, but also shared the parameters in which I would see it as no longer serving that purpose.

            1. ArtsNerd*

              Oh that’s interesting that the exercise explicitly says the questions don’t need to be too sensitive. I do think the challenges of childhood one is likely to prompt trauma-dumping even if a lighter tone was established for the reasons Garblesnark details below. But LW’s leadership laying out such serious challenges as the baseline took basically any other option off the table.

              1. CH*

                I agree about the leadership team serving as a barometer for appropriate stories! In my personal experience with it, the boundaries were set up front by the activity leader so it was in no way a trauma dump.

      4. Warrior Princess Xena*

        The only time I have found it find it remotely relevant to know deeply intimate details about past traumas is if a colleague is being a jerk, and the trauma response/history of loneliness/etc can begin to explain why they are being a jerk. Which is useful for a therapist, but at the office I’d like them to just not be a jerk, thanks.

        Humanizing details can be “I own five cats” or “I have two kids who both play all the sports” or “I do oil painting in my spare time”. I don’t need to hear “my mom died when I was a kid”.

        1. Boof*

          Yeah the why of a bad behavior doesn’t usually trump engaging in the bad behavior unless it happens to have specific and reasonable accommodations

    3. jasmine*

      I don’t really think it’s invasive or intrusive. The question was vague enough that you could answer with anything. Some people chose to go deep. Given what OP said about folks not being coerced and the culture of the org, it doesn’t sound like there was any pressure to divulge personal details.

      The point about a captive audience is fair though. Perhaps for similar ice-breakers the prompt can also include, “just a reminder that we should be mindful and not share anything that might be triggering to others”

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        Having leadership set the tone with really deep topics was inappropriate, IMO. Whether or not it’s actually a rule, people will follow the example set by their leadership and management.

        1. Bananapantsfeelings*

          I don’t know that I would say that a management team that overshares trauma will ALWAYS be toxic and boundary-stomping… but in my experience the Venn diagram is close to just a circle.

      2. Kella*

        “A challenge that shaped who you are today” is an inherently vulnerable question because it involves something you personally found difficult, and something honest about who you are. The purpose of an icebreaker is to connect to the other people there. Choosing to answer the question in a bland, non-vulnerable way keeps your boundaries intact but it also defeats the purpose of the exercise and blocks people from connecting to you. An exercise where the only way to connect is to let go of your boundaries very easily results in invasive and intrusive social pressure.

        If anything, the problem with this question was that it was far too vague and allowed for trauma dumping without making sure everyone was on board for that. Narrowing the scope of the question and explicitly giving guidance about what kind of answers they were and weren’t looking for, would’ve dramatically reduced the invasiveness.

    4. Just me*

      I agree. This is a horrible thing to have anyone do, can we please just stop this??

  3. Kyle S.*

    I hope LW’s doubts about this exercise are the beginning of them critically reviewing whether the organization’s entire attitude toward integrating personal trauma with the workplace is healthy. Compartmentalization is an important function for managing one’s psyche, but it sounds like this organization’s practices might be set up to prevent it.

    1. WellRed*

      Agreed. I posted below that I doubt this is the only inappropriate activity they do.

      1. Happy meal with extra happy*

        I don’t think this is necessarily fair. While it might be good for OP to consider, I think it’s equally likely that the organization generally does a good job, but had this one-off awful brain fart of an idea.

        1. Smithy*

          Yeah…I think very often the things that can usually make a workplace a positive place to work can also make errors along those same lines. The OP says that it’s been beneficial to have a place open about work-life balance and mental health, so having aa culture open to talk about being worried about burn out or mental health related workplace accommodations without having to be overly watchful of your words. That same place may often be the most likely to err in that same way – i.e. an ice breaker too close to trauma dumping.

          What makes the workplace more or less problematic big picture is how they respond to that feedback. Obviously if they respond dismissively or negatively – that’s the problem. But my experience is that places that are the best in a certain area, or also the most likely to make mistakes in that same area.

          1. Traumadumping LW*

            Letter-writer here, and I think this is spot on. This is a great place to work, and I think some people have benefited from knowing this info about coworkers and being able to share openly. This one felt like it missed the mark to me (though in our debriefing, nearly HALF the company said this was their favorite exercise!!!)

            1. Smithy*

              I’m currently at my best workplace ever (also an ngo) and to focus on the positives, it’s a place that’s really supportive of staff and their ideas, and really leans on giving people the benefit of the doubt. This is also where frustration or error can come in where if you have negative or critical feedback. Overall the reality hasn’t been so bad that I’d leave, but it’s that case where the stuff that benefits me can also frustrate me because.

              I’ve still been able to voice concerns where it’s a problem – some things change, some things don’t. But largely to reiterate that you’re not out of step to think this wasn’t a great ice breaker and also that your employers blind spot to this may be an area where they may make less than awesome choices again. But it doesn’t have to make it an overall flawed workplace, especially for your needs and your job.

            2. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

              I can honestly see that people who have worked in an environment where having personal life challenges/ mental health struggles, etc something to keep hidden might feel great relief at this exercise because it could make them feel like they are finally in a place that understands that life happens. I could imagine feeling immensely connected in the moment if you have had to put on an emotionless mask for years at a prior job.

              That does not override the inappropriateness of this as an icebreaker. I would be horrified and I would feel really under pressure because enough people in my small office circle know my real trauma and I would feel like they were witnessing me lying when I told some benign childhood story and feel pressure to explain to them privately why I didn’t tell my story. This is the kind of thing that would wake me up at 3 am for years.

              1. New laptop who dis*

                I hear what you’re saying about some people finding this exercise a welcome relief. However, people need to go to therapy or find a supportive resource in their personal life for this stuff. It doesn’t belong at work!!

            3. jasmine*

              Personally I’d enjoy this activity (so long as I felt no one was pressured to share their trauma), even if I myself chose to give a mundane answer. But Alison’s right that the people who don’t want to hear about this at work would be prioritized.

          2. Just checking in*

            Agreed. This runs the risk of becoming subject to office gossip and can change professional opinions about your colleagues.

    2. MsM*

      Yeah, I feel like an unfortunate number of offices that tout themselves as supportive of mental health issues don’t do an effective job of differentiating between “it’s okay to let us know that you might need to leave early on Wednesdays for a standing therapy appointment,” and “tell us about your entire childhood.”

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Yes, lots of managers see themselves — consciously or not — as some form of pseudo-therapists. The LW here might have some success with plainly and simply pointing out that much of what people shared in this session would be best discussed with therapists.

        I think this whole thing could have gone a very different route if the very first person to share had use a more mundane example, like a bad grade in middle school that taught them the value of taking good notes or something. Proper modeling from management about the types of stories that people are expected to share is crucial in a session like this, and of course people took their cues when management led by sharing traumatic personal experiences.

        1. Freya*

          Especially since therapists have professional indemnity insurance regarding this kind of work and ones co-workers do not.

      2. Lacey*

        Yes. A lot of workplaces don’t understand what actual support would be.
        Even when it comes to physical health, this is an issue.

        A friend of mine had a boss who would have arranged for coworkers to come to her home and take care of things while she was hospitalized, but was holding it against her that she didn’t work extra while horribly sick to figure out who would work on her projects while she was hospitalized.

        The boss could have taken a legitimate work worry off my friend’s plate, but instead she wanted the keys to her house so she could mow the lawn & feed her dog.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Oof that’s “halping” in the worst way.
          It’s all a performance for the boss’s ego.

          1. Brain the Brian*

            Yep. It’s the kind of help I might expect from friends or a church congregation or what-have-you, not coworkers or my boss — and if my coworkers are friends who could provide those things, they probably already have a key to my house. Managers need to keep in mind in which lane of their employees’ lives they fall and tailor the kinds of support they offer accordingly.

            1. Anon for this one*


              When I was going through chemo, what I wanted from my friends were things like coming over with food, picking my kid up from school, and making a grocery run. From work? Not to be sidelined from interesting projects just because I wasn’t there all the time, exemption from the otherwise required in-office days (I was badly immunocompromised), and looking the other way about the multitude of shorter appointments. (I took PTO for chemo until it ran out, at which point I had to go on short-term disability, but there were all the other check-ins and scans etc etc as well that didn’t take as long per appointment but definitely added up.)

              1. I Have RBF*

                My wife has cancer, probably terminal. I am extremely grateful for my boss being tolerant of me ducking out in the afternoons to take my wife to her appointments. Yes, we theoretically have unlimited vacation, unlimited sick, but it’s not really unlimited.

        2. And thanks for the coffee*

          Umm, no, I don’t want coworkers coming to my house when I’m in the hospital. I don’t want them to visit me in hospital either.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is such a good distinction. I want to support my team and give them as much flexibility as possible to do what they need to do for themselves, but I’m not in any way qualified to be their therapist (nor do I want to be).

        Sharing this sort of thing routinely in the workplace also creates issues. It makes some people wildly uncomfortable. It put managers with coverage needs in the position of deciding who has to cover a schedule where Bob has a therapy appointment, Jane has a medical procedure, and Pat is having a really tough day and emotionally just can’t with work today – essentially a value judgment about people’s health. It will make some employees feel they are constantly being asked to do more because they not struggling (fair or not).

      4. shrambo*

        Absolutely. Effective support in the workplace looks like flexible scheduling, abundant sick leave/PTO, and willingness to adapt and adjust expectations as appropriate. In other words, giving people flexibility to run their life the way that works best for them. It does not mean pulling more of people’s personal lives into the workplace.

      5. Anon for this*

        We have had so many stories here from people whose managers appointed themselves their therapists. Or the whole company’s therapists.

    3. Clisby*

      I see nothing “normal” about this.
      Also, I would not feel privileged to learn about co-workers’ traumas and it 100% would not bring us closer together. It would be OK if it were a co-worker I was close friends with outside of work, but just people I work with? No.

      1. Saturday*

        And even if this brought some people closer together, it didn’t happen in a work-appropriate way.

        A work environment supportive of mental health and other struggles is great – one where all kinds of intimate details are shared is not.

    4. Ralpj*

      “Well, quite recently, now, in fact, I was put in a position where I was expected to share personal information with people I don’t necessarily know very well. I find that traumatic”.

    5. Anon for this*

      Exactly. Your work life and your personal life are two different things, despite some companies trying to make you work (for free!) during non-work times. They NEED to be two different things. You need to be able to decompress from one while you’re doing the other.

      Blurring the two together is what gives us “we’re like a family here” dysfunction, companies that demand that you respond to email when you’re on vacation, bosses that show up in your hospital room, and worse.

      People have jobs. People have families and lives. The two should not be mixed.

    6. TheBunny*

      I said something along the same lines. I am not sure it’s the prompt itself that caused this, but the culture in the workplace that took a question that could lead people down a much more “My favorite field trip because it made me want to be an attorney” road than they took.

      Yes, knowing the culture this whole thing should have been avoided, but the company culture plays a hand in why this went so wrong. IMO

  4. Emmy*

    “Some of our leadership team kicked off the discussion with examples of fertility challenges, mental health breakdowns, parents dying, arrests, etc. Very rock-bottom items that I feel privileged to know about, and certainly bring us closer together.”
    If this was a friend who had trusted you with this information I understand the gratitude but this is not a friendship – anyone in your place would have heard it, not just the specific you. And later, those anyones were almost complete strangers. Feeling more or less pressured to do it. And being expected to get to work immediately after ripping up in old wounds. You are on the right path to feel uncomfortable with this.

    1. Emmy*

      Oh wait, I see I misread – this wasn’t before work, it was to improve morale and work friendships? The last one miiight have worked but not the first.

    2. Dawn*

      Yeah I’ve been in a job or two where managers regularly shared stuff like this, and it was not actually good for anyone. I suspect that when OP gets out of here and into a job more in line with workplace norms they’re going to find themselves saying, “Wow, so that place really was toxic….”

      I know that they say they are grateful now and I get it but this sounds more to me like a Twitter cluster than a workplace and that’s never been a healthy dynamic long-term.

    3. Irish Teacher.*

      Yeah, I’ve felt privileged when a colleague that I’m friendly with has confided in me about something personal as I’ve felt it means they trust me and when I told a colleague about needing to have my thyroid removed, they thanked me for telling them and I had the impression they did feel…well, that it was an indication of trust that I made a point of telling them.

      But I would not feel privileged that somebody made an announcement about their personal circumstances to the entire workplace because that shows no indication that they trust me personally. I guess it does indicate that they feel safe at work, but it could just as easily indicate they are an oversharer in general.

      1. MassMatt*

        The thought of doing this in front of FORTY PEOPLE, some of whom I’d just met, makes me cringe. I mean, yes you can go with something low on your personal trauma scale (the organizers probably thought it was OK for this reason), but who can think clearly when put on the spot like this, or wants to? And is there going to be some sort of pressure to compete to out-traumatize?

        What is going to be done about the emotional load everyone now bears from hearing about mental breakdowns, deaths in the family, illnesses, fertility struggles, and who knows what else from FORTY people!?

        I’ll take LW at their word that this is generally a great place to work but hopefully that means they will be receptive to hearing that this was not an appropriate exercise–I won’t call it an “icebreaker”, ugh.

      2. Brain the Brian*

        If one person willingly chose to disclose trauma to the entire workplace, I can see it being an indication that they trust everyone. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is a setup where people will feel pressure to one-up each other’s stories, and because everyone knows that, everyone knows that their colleagues don’t trust them any more or less today than they did yesterday. They’re not sharing willingly; they’re sharing because they want to “fit in” — the absolute opposite of being truly open.

        The only thing this will do is breed resentment toward management for choosing and poorly modeling a bad icebreaker — not a great way to begin a company-wide convening.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      All of this. I had a department leader who tried to pull off this sort of exercise once, and it very much felt like sharing something deeply personal and traumatic was required, not optional. The department leader talked about being abandoned by a parent who then went and started a new family that they were not welcome with. A coworker shared about watching a childhood friend die after being shot. People without “big” shares were kind of glossed over and made to feel that they didn’t participate enough.

      The cherry on top was that this department leader never had anything nice to say about anyone’s work. A coworker and I once received a lovely email from a client about how pleased they were with the difficult work they requested under a compressed timeframe and how appreciative they were of the extra effort we’d put in to ensure their needs were more than taken care of. The department leader said to us (and I remember this because it was such a terrible thing to say), “I don’t really see what you all did here that was so great. If you haven’t exceeded client expectations, you haven’t met mine.” So, there was not a lot of interpersonal trust or safety to begin with.

    5. Ellis Bell*

      I was very surprised to hear LW say they were grateful to see such manipulative overtures kick off this discussion. The word gratitude was way down my list behind Gavin De Becker’s “forced teaming” and “too many details” and I reframed “favour sharking” into “intimacy sharking” in honour of the occasion. I don’t mean to imply they were deliberately trying to do harm, but it was deliberately prompting their employees to share more than they otherwise would have done; you were supposed to be grateful! When someone confides in us, especially over difficult things, we feel obliged to share back. It’s appropriate to a point with a peer in a free-to-leave social situation, but not subordinates in a more captive work situation. They have misused their power over others here; extremely shameful.

  5. WellRed*

    I can think of lots of adjectives to describe hearing this and grateful ain’t one of them. I would not be surprised if there are other cringeworthy touchy feely practices at this company, just not as overt.

  6. Medium Sized Manager*

    I’m curious if the people who found it helpful thought that because they got to “offload” thoughts or feelings without realizing it’s not the right outlet. I’m sure the “dumpers” felt better than the “dumpees.”

    1. K in Boston*

      This is what I was thinking — Yes, of course it can feel therapeutic to get this stuff off your chest. That’s what the whole concept and industry of therapy is built on! But captive, untrained Coworkers Who Did Not Sign Up For This just isn’t the place.

      I was in a department that piloted a mentorship program, and was surprised to hear that one of the (positive) pieces of feedback they quoted after the fact was that mentees said it “felt like therapy.” I understand why people might use workplace as therapy – it’s a place where people who aren’t necessarily privy to your “outside” life exist, therapy is expensive and hard to get into for a myriad of both personal and systemic reasons, etc. – but that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t the right place to offload trauma.

    2. Traumadumping LW*

      This is a great point. Probably 30% of our team said this was their FAVORITE PART of the whole retreat. I was taken aback and couldn’t really understand why, but this makes a lot of sense to me.

      1. Brain the Brian*

        Some people will default to assuming any activity that made them cry at a retreat was the best one — even if it was a completely inappropriate activity for work.

        I’m a theatre fan, and I see the same with Broadway shows: people say that a show made them cry as if it’s an automatic shorthand for saying the show was good. It’s not. Some shows are really poorly written but feature performers who evoke an emotional reaction from their audience nonetheless. They tend to fail quickly after the original cast leaves.

        The same is true of professional retreats: crying does not equal a useful activity for the context. Quite the opposite, in fact.

        I’d be curious your take on whether it was the prompt that was bad or the first few interpretations of it. Was it the sort of question where the facilitator might have been expecting lower-key responses and just didn’t know how to rein it back in when the first few answers were way more traumatic than they might have expected?

        1. Traumadumping LW*

          Honestly, the facilitator was our CEO. We had done this in a small groua few weeks before and it was way more tame! But the example given by the person facilitating was much more tame. So I’m not really sure.

          1. Medium Sized Manager*

            Another poster recommended calling out specifically that it should be work appropriate, so guardrails might be helpful. It might not have been something your CEO considered because everybody previously responded in a tame way.

          2. Brain the Brian*

            So no outside facilitator — got it. Did the CEO lead off the responses with an example, or did the discussion immediately start with someone else who went off the rails? The former is obviously way worse than the latter.

      2. The Bigger the Hair…the closer to god*

        Do those people not have friends or family to turn to? That’s kinda sad that they’re relying on work connections to get through their trauma.

        Still not the place to manage all these emotions…

        1. Medium Sized Manager*

          Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to a stranger than a loved one. If I talk to my family or friends about a trauma or upsetting stage of my life, that’s a lot more emotionally charged than talking to a stranger. Heck, I almost typed out the exact thing to you, a stranger, because it will not affect me whatsoever that you know it. You aren’t going to talk to me about it or bring it up later when I may not want you to, but a loved one probably will.

        2. Antigone Funn*

          What Medium Sized Manager said, and also…my mom is far from the worst mom in the world, but I don’t tell her bad stuff anymore. Why? Because the last time I did, she told me my “soul was torn” by my dad’s death (25+ years ago) and that, if I was up for doing the hard work, she’d hire a shaman to find the lost piece of my soul and return it. So I guess she regards me as hopelessly broken unless of course I’d like to join her religion. Awesome, now I have a new problem! Say what you will about therapists, they are educated and licensed and know better than to respond like that.

          Point being, you don’t even have to be on bad terms with your family for them to be bad confidants. If you are on bad terms, like if they’re the ones who caused the trauma, then confiding in them will only make it worse. There’s a lot of potential for ongoing harm from confiding in the wrong person, if they’re close to you. It’s not sad or irrational to want to avoid that whole minefield.

    3. Petty Betty*

      That was my assumption.

      And unfortunately, I think that this place has normalized such things that the LW hasn’t noticed that they are covered with bees.

      1. Anon for this*

        I am now imagining the facilitator starting to talk and suddenly bees fly out of their mouth.

  7. Heidi*

    This type of ice-breaker really puts people on the spot. If someone doesn’t want to share something very personal and intense, or if they haven’t had an experience of comparable gravity, then what are they supposed to do? Make something up? Talk about how they ran into Cameron Diaz and talked her out of buying a truly heinous angora sweater?

    1. Resume please*

      I really dislike these types of “ice-breakers”, they are so inappropriate. I haven’t had the same level of personal sharing as the LW, but when these things do happen at work, I have a few stories in my back pocket that are mildly entertaining to tell, probably inoffensive, and were mildly traumatic at the time but I got over them quickly. Namely, that time in my youth when I was on a rollercoaster that stopped working 13 stories high up and the fire department had to rescue everyone. Stuff like that.

    2. UKDancer*

      Yes I mean I’ve had a fairly uneventful and happy childhood. Nothing traumatic happened. I had bereavements (grandparents, godparents) but nothing that wasn’t the normal sort if life happening. I got bullied a bit but it wasn’t majorly damaging.

      I can’t think of anything massively formative. should I invent something?

        1. UKDancer*

          But I don’t think anything of those was formative, they were just stuff that happened and I had to think hard to dredge them up.

          I’m not sure I’d think of them in an ice breaker situation.

          1. Irish Teacher.*

            Yeah, I may be taking this way too literally (I tend to do that) but…I can’t think of any sad event in my life that had an ongoing impact on who I was. Not sure I can think of any happy events that did either.

            I’m sure many events helped to shape who I am, but there isn’t anything where I can say “I do/feel x because y happened.”

          2. Polly Hedron*

            That’s the part you’d have to make up: “I was very sad about X but I know now that it made me a stronger person.”

      1. Hell in a Handbasket*

        I was thinking the same. I’d be in a panic in the moment trying to dredge up/invent something. And would feel very awkward speaking about something minor if the people before me were going on about capital-T Trauma events.

      2. Ellis Bell*

        I feel like being honest about this would be the perfect answer, but only if this were the movie version of the workplace were bosses didn’t mind being made to look foolish, or you get a happy ending anyway: “I get the impression you’re looking for something really sad, but I don’t have any examples like that in my life and I feel like saying something happier is disrespectful to be honest.” Then just sit back down and drink in the deliciously awkward silence. But obviously, only do this in a movie script.

        1. TheBunny*

          IMO opinion this is why this is a bad icebreaker for this workplace.

          Most places it would be the favorite books or something else, it’s this workplace that went way down a dark road.

          Again, I want to stress I am not a fan of the question and don’t think it should have been used, but wonder if the intent and the result might have been very different and that the person who came up with this likely (although maybe not, who knows) intended the lighter side of things and got…this.

      3. Anon for this*

        I could talk about books that helped make me who I am.

        I could talk about movies that helped make me who I am.

        I could talk about things I saw that impressed me that helped make me who I am.

        I will not talk about traumatic events from my past. I want to keep those in the past, not dig them up to display them for the approval of co-workers.

    3. New laptop who dis*

      The worst is, if you follow with an innocuous or light-hearted story, it can feel sort of disrespectful to the people that just shared some horrific trauma. So people instead follow suit with another traumatic story, and you wind up with everyone crying.

      1. JustaTech*

        Yes. Or if you don’t have anything to share and can’t make a mountain out of a molehill on the spot then at least some of your coworkers are going to think you’re holding back and don’t trust them, while others will think you’re stuck up.

    4. Helen Waite*

      I’ve had plenty of trauma in my life, but I really don’t think those stories are ice-breaker material.

      This letter has inspired me to come up with formative events that were happy memories if ever I am put in such a situation.

  8. Choggy*

    Neutral, neutral, neutral, I use that to fill out any work-related surveys, and keep my work relationships on a need to know basis. Not work appropriate at all, and no reason for this except to make people feel uncomfortable (from both perspectives).

  9. Clearance Issues*

    coming from someone who has to struggle not to trauma dump at the slightest provocation:
    No. Absolutely not. I will not share my traumas in front of the work team, especially people I’ve just met. Not like that. I have some stuff back in my past that can definitely trigger people and myself.
    Work being supportive about mental health looks like EAP, flexibility in tough times, and insurance that covers therapy.
    It does not look like trauma dumping as a team building activity.

    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      Good point. Yeah, that urge to talk about something at the slightest provocation. Like, does anyone want a 10 minute rant on all the crap going on in my family right now? Probably not and TBH it can be hard to trim it down to a brief easy-to-foll0w quick share.

  10. Pillow Fort Forever*

    These are so awful. At a big, well known recruiting company our required management team building had the same. Go up in front of everyone and talk about a trauma. Having survived an assault ten years prior (and still sometimes feeling like I was barely holding it together) I spent the days before the event coming up with a fake mini-trauma that I could share without losing it. It was our CEOs pet project – I even spoke to him about how it wasn’t an appropriate place, nor was the facilitator qualified to handle, the sort of stuff this could unleash in someone. He simply reminded me of our EAP. But appreciate every single person who has been stuck doing this crap for a paycheck – and to everyone who makes it thru one!!

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      I had a largely happy childhood raised in a functional family that still gets together every year. I would have to flat out make something up, if required to produce such a story.

      1. Two-Faced Big-Haired Food Critic*

        There was a traumatic event in my family during my tween years. Unfortunately, it pulled us further and further apart and there was no healing. I could never talk about that in this setting because it was bad stuff that happened and continued to happen. There were no positives to derive from it, so what would *anyone* get out of my sharing it?

      2. Irish Teacher.*

        Same. I can’t think of any specific story that “shaped who I am.” I’m sure plenty of events in my life did but nothing that noticeably changed me.

      3. Pillow Fort Forever*

        A friend suggested using a movie plot (to make me laugh while brainstorming what to say) – stalked by a shark in Amnity, trapped with family in hotel in Colorado, found out my real father was Darth.

      4. Unkempt Flatware*

        Wow! You should write a book about that, RH! Baseball and healthy families….a long lost concept.

    2. Meganly*

      When I was in training to be an RA, we did a similar ice breaker. We all went around sharing “our worst moment” like that is an ok thing to share with two dozen strangers. I really wish the organizers had redirected it to be within a work context instead. It was hard enough hearing everyone unload their traumas; there was no way I was going to share my worst thing. I felt like a jerk for being super short and giving zero details about a less-traumatic (but still awful) thing when everyone else was apparently happy to share and cry. It was a hugely horrible and stressful experience for me.

    1. CM*

      Yes, and I think with things like this, the first person to go really sets the tone for what everyone else does. For the leadership team to start off with deeply personal stories sounds really uncomfortable. If instead, they had talked about a work experience, or something lighter from their personal life followed by one or two other people talking about more work-focused examples, this would have seemed much less intrusive.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        I was thinking this too. It could still have been bad, but if the focus was on influential experiences (rather than “challenging”) with less emphasis on childhood and the first person talked about a long hiking trip they took one summer in college or the course they signed up for to meet a requirement that ended up changing their major then maybe the entire thing would have been different.

      2. UKDancer*

        Yes sharing a challenging work experience might be helpful. I’ve been to a work training where 3 senior leaders talked about the biggest professional challenge they’d faced and that was really good.

        I have no interest in their personal lives.

      3. Zap R.*

        My instinct for something like this would be to pick an amusing personal anecdote that had some sort of teachable moment. Like, “One time a bird got into the office and I had to catch it before people freaked out. Here’s how I did it.” But if you’re the only one who shares an amusing personal anecdote and everyone else (including leadership!) is sharing stuff more along the lines of “My plane crashed in the Andes and I had to eat my friends,” you’re just going to look like an insensitive goof.

        It’s on leadership to set the tone for the exercise and if they open with a trauma dump, everyone else will feel obligated to trauma dump too.

      1. Traumadumping LW*

        oh boy if I hadn’t gone on the earlier side I would have 100% used this! So challenging.

      2. ArtsNerd*

        Honestly, I’m having mild flashbacks to a high school retreat that made us do something similar and I’m still furious about it.

        1. Cheese Goddess*

          Heh, I wonder if we went to the same high school, as this letter also gave me flashbacks to a similar experience. The trauma dump was a core part of our junior retreat, and, while at the time it made us all feel incredibly bonded, in retrospect as an adult I’m appalled at what they had us do with virtually no support to give to students after the trauma dump.

    2. Pillow Fort Forever*

      It was supposed to be personal unfortunately. Although it would have been great to share about my week prior to the event and how it re-traumatized me.

    3. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      This would probably help people if they worked in a highly fraught or dangerous industry… like they might suffer losses of clients or coworkers on the job and need to lean on support of their peers who understand their trauma. I had to reread the OP a few times to make sure, but this does not sound like the case for this company. What happens for the person who hasn’t really had much in the way of life trauma?

  11. John*

    Alison, incredibly sorry to hear about what you’re going through. Will keep you and your family in my thoughts.

  12. Sunflower*

    Oh hell no! I don’t like ice-breakers in the first place since I don’t like revealing anything about myself, and this question would send me into a panic and then I would just make something up.

    I may even tolerate if asked about a happy memory. Not necessary childhood since many people may not have one from childhood. But if they want the team to “get to know each other,” they should ask questions like what’s their favorite book/food/hobby or something like that.

    1. ferrina*

      Yeah, beyond all the issues of trauma dumping at work, this isn’t even a good ice breaker! An ice breaker is supposed to help people feel welcome to contribute and open to listening- basically avoiding the polite dance of “do I talk to this person” and move on to “let’s talk to this person and collaborate”.

      After this “ice breaker”, I would be in no mood to talk to anyone. I would be emotionally exhausted and guarded.

    2. Exhausted Trope*

      Yes, %. Why does it have to be traumatic experiences? Share happy thoughts, keep things positive.

    3. KatherineJ*

      I dislike ice breakers that require me to share anything moderately personal. If I wanted you to know, I would tell you. Light and surface level and no touching. I literally left the room during strategic planning with my workplaces board board because I felt it was a waste of time.

  13. bamcheeks*

    This kind of stuff is very bad! In addition to what Alison has said, part of the problem of this kind of stuff is that there’s very often unwritten rules about the right level of “difficult” to share, which can be incredibly difficult for people with trauma or neurodiverse people to navigate (and having trauma AND being neurodiverse is pretty common.) It feels like an open, sharing thing, but it can be very normative in ways that aren’t immediately visible and very exclusionary.

    1. Zap R.*

      Ditto on the neurodivergent/trauma thing.

      Most of the challenging experiences I’ve had in my personal life are directly related to my disability. I don’t want to talk about that at work!

    2. JustaTech*

      Very much this. I’ve even had ice breakers where the facilitator asked folks to share an “interesting” fact about themselves and one coworker (like the 3rd person to go) shared about her horrific accident and brain injury.
      The poor facilitator looked like a landed fish – she just had no idea how to move on from that, so I got to be the one to say “Well, I’m not that interesting! I run half marathons for fun. [Next Coworker], what about you?”

      Which is why, when I’ve been asked to set up stuff like that I always specify “a light, fun fact about yourself”. Maybe I’ll change it to “a fun work fact about yourself”.

  14. Richard Hershberger*

    Lordy, but I hate ice-breakers! Every single one of them. They run the gamut from pointless time wastes to horrific, with this one on the horrific end.

    And furthermore, what does “challenging or unique personal experience” even mean? From the examples they seem to have had emotional trauma in mind, but that isn’t what they said. I can tell you about how Partial Differential Equations convinced me I wasn’t cut out to be a physics major. Does that count? Is it the least bit interesting to anyone, including (at this late point in my life) me?

    1. D*

      I default to “I skipped a grade in elementary school” when they do these ones and talk about how it was weird socially and really did affect my life (in tiny, minor ways, that they mostly don’t need to know about)

      Is it is actually traumatic? I don’t think so. Does it Sound Good for people moderating these things? So far it’s worked, and I’ve gotten to keep all my actual trauma to myself.

      1. Nessun*

        An interesting example, because I skipped a grade in elementary school and I found it deeply traumatizing (I’m still unpacking bits of it 20 years later). Which just goes to show, these exercises are just fundamentally a terrible idea because you never know your audience’s individual experiences and triggers! I’m amazed that anyone, especially HR or C-suite, would think this was appropriate as a starter for a work event, and I hope OP speaks up about it not being suitable.

        1. D*

          I do actually think it was pretty impactful to my life in a lot of ways that I mostly don’t want to talk about at work, but I don’t personally find it upsetting to talk about most of the time.

          But, that is a great point: there are some things with common triggers, but people have traumatic associations with basically *everything* that gets deeply emotional.

          Can’t we just talk about “Book that really influenced who I am” or something, dang.

        2. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

          Nessun – same. It wasn’t traumatizing at the time, but 3 year later it led to some deep trauma that has affected all of my relationships (friendships and romantic)

      2. ferrina*

        This is a good default. It’s also something that people pretty much always admire you for doing (they assume that skipping a grade= exceptionally intelligent). And it’s an experience that everyone has heard of.

      3. LaurCha*

        Thank you for this suggestion! I skipped 2nd grade and it definitely had an impact (I mean, I started high school at 12 and college at 16, which is not ideal socially) but overall I wouldn’t call it a traumatic experience per se. I will keep this one in my pocket for sure.

        Also I hope schools have stopped doing this. Just because I was reading/mathing a couple of grade levels above my age, doesn’t mean it was appropriate to put me a year ahead.

        1. D*

          My school made me have several visits with a psychologist before they let me do it, but I was only 5, so I only remember bits of that part of the evaluation.

        2. Clumsy Ninja*

          Same. Although I think it’s less likely to happen now, at least in larger school districts, because they have more ability to offer gifted/advanced level classes instead of just throwing one to the older wolves, so to speak.

        3. Reb*

          I essentially skipped a year due to different places having different cutoffs. I went from being one of the oldest kids in P3 (Grade 1) to one of the youngest kids in Y3 (Grade 2), and because the number was the same I never realised I essentially skipped a year. Also, we moved halfway through the school year, so on my first day there was a times table test and I didn’t know what times tables were.

    2. notagain*

      I have never once used the information from an ice-breaker in the course of my work duties. Even the “helpful” personality/communication exercises fade away after a weekend or two.

    3. Christmas Carol*

      I thought DiffyQs were rather fun, it was Series and Sequences that did me in.

    4. TheBunny*

      Honestly, I suspect the person who suggested the icebreaker had something more in like with your math issues than what they got. At least that is how I read it.

      Either way, it’s awful. The only difference in my way of reading it and most of the commentariat is that mine takes the intent out of a bad idea.

  15. SwimUpstream*

    This is crazy. I’m not even comfortable sharing a “fun fact” about myself with work strangers, let alone something real and traumatic. I’ll never understand employers who keep trying mix work life and real life.
    I’d be horrified to have to do this.

    1. Paint N Drip*

      I would have to guess that since the company is already close-knit and intimate, someone thought that going “deep”/intense was a good choice. I’d further guess that whoever wants an intimate workplace doesn’t think the discussed ice breaker is boundary-crossing stuff but good team-building, connections being forged!!
      I’d also be horrified to be asked to do this, and would NOT appreciate the unexpected group therapy for those who did share heavy stuff.

  16. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    If I were greeted with this “icebreaker”, I would excuse myself and leave the room. And probably start looking for another job immediately.

    I am incredibly sensitive to people I am not close to trauma-dumping or oversharing. I can count on one hand the number of people I would feel comfortable talking about or listening to such personal things with, and none of them are co-workers. I’ve had a few co-workers try this with me, and after a few grey-rock responses followed by my leaving as quickly as possible, they learn that I’m not comfortable with intimate conversations and stop trying to engage me.

    You are not off base at all, OP. Just reading your letter made me want to crawl out of my skin.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      All of this plus I tend to have a visual reaction to being told things against my will. Resting Cringe Face, if you will. I can’t stop it and I can’t hide it.

  17. Leave Hummus Alone*

    I just wanted to send some love your way, Alison. I’m so sorry to hear about your parent and their bad news.

  18. seashell*

    I had to sit through an awful ice breaker that devolved into tears and one-upping each other at a ‘normal’ department meeting and I was so frozen I just sat there and didn’t leave the room. It was AWFUL

    1. Traumadumping LW*

      The one-upping is a great call out. It wasn’t explicit, but the intensity did ramp up over the course of the event in a way that was uncomfortable. All I could think about was how this would make a great SNL skit and I might like to watch this truly go off the rails

  19. Trivia Newton-John*

    Alison, I just want to say I am sending you all the hugs for the news on your parent’s situation. I hate that you (or anyone) has to navigate this and it really sucks and is terrible and I’m so sorry.

    Re this question in general: I’ve had significant amounts of trauma and I don’t need to have those things brought up again while I’m trying to work. That is wrong of them to require that level of sharing.

  20. CallMyLawyer(AndMyTherapist)*

    I am twenty years out from my challenging experience that shaped who I am now, I have had and am still having therapy to cope with that and I would not participate in this.

    I will happily use my trauma as a club to try and beat sense into anyone who suggests this sort of nonsense ahead of time but I’m not going to subject any of my colleauges to even a brief recitation of what caused that.

    On the one occasion that I’ve been in this sort of situation I said something along the lines of “my lawyer advised me not to speak about this” and when I got challenged on that, I pointed out that I already had ADA acommodations for PTSD and I was happy to go get a thing from my doctor or my therapist saying that I was unable to participate in this sort of nonsense.

    My lawyer hasn’t actually advised me on that, but I did check with them that my legal history as a victim wasn’t going to appear on any background checks and was told no, it’s pretty well locked down so I would have to choose to tell somebody.

  21. Doozie*

    Agree that this is traumatizing and would trigger other people. As someone who just lost a beloved parent, this would literally take me down and tears would be uncontrollable. I don’t want to do that at work.

    And Alison, I’m sending you and your family good thoughts.

  22. Narwhals are real*

    Ugh. I think I’d make up a story, if I couldn’t get out of it.

    Fun answer is share the plot from Lion King as if it was my own story, like on The Office.

    1. Elle*

      Honestly, any Shakespeare play, comedy or drama, would be funny to do this with, not just lion king/hamlet.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Yeah, so there was this time that I and my identical twin sister were shipwrecked and separated. It turned out OK in the end, but there was that weird bit where she dressed up like a dude and this strange woman asks me to marry her.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      Go large: Silence of the Lambs. Pick from which character’s pespective.

      1. Dawn*

        Honestly can’t think of a single character in that book/movie that wouldn’t result in your being fired immediately.

    3. Sunflower*

      Or the plot to My Girl where the little girl lost her only friend to a bee sting.

      Or the plot to Matilda where she got over her toxic family and school principal by discovering she has magic. LOL

    4. ferrina*

      The Odessey!

      “Well, I was sent for a tense work trip. It was a really awful situation, involving broken contracts and third-party manipulation, but eventually we got it sorted out. But on the way back, everything went wrong! We got lost, some seedy people tried to convince us into a dangerous situation (luckily my travel companions refused to listen), a bunch of my travel companions started acting boarish- it was a whole thing. After what felt like years, I finally got back, only to discover several of my “friends” had moved themselves in and had been hitting on my wife the whole time I was gone!”

    5. Lopsided Teapot*

      Or pretend you misheard it as “trauma dumpling” and tell a story about the worst potsticker you’ve ever eaten.

      1. Sunflower*

        Complete with dramatic pauses and holding back tears when you get to the part about the chopsticks. “I’m sorry. I thought I could do this but I need a minute to pull myself together.”

    6. Jill Swinburne*

      “Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet.”

      And so on. It would be worth the effort to memorise the full speech.

  23. Distracted Procrastinator*

    As someone who has trauma in my background (like most people) this sort of thing would be highly distressing for me even if I didn’t bring up the trauma. I know from past experience, that hearing other people discuss something similar can be very upsetting for me. I would have had to leave the meeting, also distressing in it’s own right, if that topic came up. It would be awful and even worse that even though I did not mention the event for myself, just bringing attention to myself would let other people know something about me that only tiny group of people in world know about my past. I’m upset just thinking about it.

  24. Jessica Clubber Lang*

    These are so bizarre – I can’t imagine how anyone would think this is a good idea. I’d be tempted to say something ridiculous (“I was a Cubs fan growing up”, “My parents didn’t let me have my own phone until I was 16!”

    1. Traumadumping LW*

      Some people went this route but even that occasionally had a traumatic turn! One person (who had recently lost a child to an overdose) alluded to the recent tragedy, said they were going to share something lighter instead, and then explained that they were left handed when that wasn’t really allowed in school and had gotten their knuckles smacked about it a number of times. Like, I guess easier in relation to the bigbadtragedy, but still kind of awful!

    2. Call Me Dr. Dork*

      The second one is a good way to tell people that you are An Old (“I didn’t have my own phone until I was in my 30s!”).

  25. Valérie*

    This sounds uncannily familiar – my old company had contracted a consultant / speaker that facilitated these exact types of workshops and they were mandatory for every new employee. Although this company promotes itself as as embracing storytelling and active listening to build stronger sales skills, it really encouraged us to “go deep” (their words) when sharing our “story of change” (or as the curriculum called it, being “all-in”). It was definitely a trauma-dump, and had a massively triggering effect that was completely unfair and inappropriate. Not to mention, there several documented instances of the (male) facilitator messaging female participants off-side and after the workshops in a really creepy way. The women’s ERG campaigned to have these mandatory workshops abolished. It was so unsafe and irresponsible, I’m baffled that this service was used to promote strong workplace culture.

    1. ferrina*

      That’s awful.

      I have facilitated these kinds of workshops, but 1) it’s always an opt-in, not required and 2) we make it easy to engage or disengage as much as you need to. It is absolutely not an appropriate onboarding activity nor required to be a high-performing professional!

      1. Traumadumping LW*

        Are there resources you could point me to about this? I think our leadership really loves these things (having already pushed back and heard some feedback). It would be helpful to have resources to make these slightly less traumatizing!

        1. ferrina*

          Honestly, you really need a trained moderator. The moderator will help set the groundrules and give you options on how to engage (knowing that different people have different levels of engagement).

          Unfortunately, it’s been over a decade for me so I don’t have any current resources (now work in the better-paying corporate world, where moderation experience is surprisingly helpful for dealing with executives). I recommend looking for non-violent conflict resolution workshops in your area- those can have some great options and offer workshops. The skills aren’t just for people that are fighting- a lot of the skills that are focused on include communication, understanding emotional escalation and learning de-escalating techniques, and self-reflection exercises. Of course, quality will vary based on organization/moderator.

          Note that these workshops are not icebreakers. An icebreaker is meant as a quick warm-up (like stretching before a sports game). These workshops often include ice-breakers, but that’s about building trust among participants rather than leaping into deepest traumas (no reputable moderator would do that).

  26. Awkwardness*

    Even though I get the sentiment of the OP that they felt priviledged to get their coworkers on such a personal level, I see two problems:
    People were not prepared for this. I had similar questions in interviews before, but I prepared for this and chose the situation I wanted to share very carefully. People might have been taken by surprise and shared details that they would not have shared if they had the possibility to think about it. Regret for oversharing is real.
    This were 40(!) people sharing trauma. Even if you are able to hold it together if one or two people shared something troubling or inappropriate during an icebreaker, I doubt this is possible with 40 people. There is no way this way a productive atmosphere afterwards.

    1. bamcheeks*

      This were 40(!) people sharing trauma

      On a very basic level, 40 people is too many to do anything more complicated than, “share how you travelled here today”. I don’t even do “tell us why you signed up for this workshop and what you hope to get out of it” for over 12.

  27. Pizza Rat*

    Reading this letter had me thinking, “no…No….NO…HELL NO!”

    Icebreakers are supposed to be ways to establish some commonalities in a group so they can start talking to each other. When I’ve led groups I’ve asked people to share something that inspires them, someone they admire, or their favorite food growing up and their favorite food now. The purpose is not to force everyone into imprinting and bonding to each other! Building relationships takes time and patience.

    Considering it can take ages for someone to share things this deeply personal with their chosen mental health professional, this idea is so far out it’s in another dimension.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Right, this is what support groups are for. Not work groups at all. Support groups, which are led by a trained professional and are entirely opt-in and everyone there knows it’s going to be a difficult but hopefully helpful session and are prepared mentally for it. You don’t spring this on a group out of the blue and especially not a work group, for cryin’ out loud.

  28. Lisa Simpson*

    About half of the problem with this is the facilitator, who should have specified that the examples must be work appropriate, and immediately corrected anyone who selected an anecdote that was not work appropriate. I worked somewhere where we often did open-ended exercises with young people, and always made it very clear that at work, we are work appropriate, and a question asking anything at work is still asking for a work appropriate answer, even if the question sounds personal on its face.

    The other half is with your coworkers. It’s absolutely bonkers that someone would hear such an open ended prompt and think it is OK to trauma dump in the workplace, and to hijack a team building exercise with personal trauma dumps. You are at WORK, act like it.

    1. Sloanicota*

      This whole activity is just .. off. An ice breaker is about warming up the room and letting people feel connected and ready to share. This activity sounds like it would have needed a pre-dumping ice breaker before most people would have wanted to open up, if for some reason we needed to open up.

      1. Clisby*

        Yeah – I from time to time audit classes at a local college, and several times professors have had a first-day ice-breaker of Two Truths and a Lie. Obviously, you can make up stuff, but I have a perfect record of no one guessing my lies. They were:

        I have never smoked pot.
        I love snakes.

        Several people said the lie was “My grandfather served during the Spanish-American War.”
        Nope. He did.

        1. Clisby*

          Oops – the lie was that I hate snakes. In fact, I do love snakes. I guess a lot of people don’t.

          1. Brain the Brian*

            I’m going to be honest that I’m not sure after reading your comments which are truths and which is the lie. But then again, I always forget which three things I’ve listed when I play this game, so I’m a notoriously bad contestant at it.

    2. emkaaaay*

      “made it very clear that at work, we are work appropriate, and a question asking anything at work is still asking for a work appropriate answer, even if the question sounds personal on its face” — this is a good way to phrase this.

    3. londonedit*

      I still don’t really want to spend time listening to people’s past work traumas, either. It’s bad enough having to come up with examples of ‘challenges’ when you’re in an interview, but on an awayday with colleagues it’d be even worse. What are you meant to say? Most people don’t want to relive past workplace traumas any more than they want to do so for any other aspect of their lives. You don’t want to feel forced into revealing that you were once fired from a job, or you made a huge and costly mistake, or whatever.

      1. londonedit*

        Sorry – misread and thought you were saying they should be work examples, not *work-appropriate* examples. Completely agree!

    4. Hyaline*

      Yeah, the facilitation appears nonexistent or very problematic. I almost fault the “kickoff” answers more than the question itself for setting the inappropriate tenor of the icebreaker–if it had stayed at “What’s a challenging or unique experience that you feel shaped you?” but the kickoff examples had been “I foster kittens” or “my family moved to France briefly and I learned fluent French from my preschool” or “I changed careers–did you know I used to be a rodeo clown?” or whatever, it might not have devolved into a trauma dump.

  29. drmagoo*

    It is one thing to have a community at work where people share these kinds of things in a safe way, but in an open space like this, it’s an open door to trigger all manner of traumatic reactions in people. It’s entirely appropriate to talk to someone about why this was problematic.

  30. Hanani*

    Alison, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had recent bad news about your mom and send you both lots of care.

  31. Elle*

    If I weren’t in management, I would be so tempted to go ahead and share some really upsetting tidbits from my childhood. I’ve had extensive EMDR and various other forms of therapy for trauma; I can speak on it pretty calmly. Let’s see if y’all can handle what you asked for. FAFO.

    1. Garblesnark*

      As someone who has upset a therapist by telling a story that didn’t bother me, I do love a well-placed FAFO.

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        I am sympathetic also. I recently received some unexpected sympathy when I related some stuff that would/could have been traumatic, if I had been aware when it happened. Both occurred before I was 1 year old, so the situation was all that I knew.

        Example. Getting glasses for nearsightedness. Before blur afterwards sharp vs going from clear vision to blur and then later back to sharp.

    2. Dawn*

      I’m very sympathetic (ask me why – or rather, don’t,) but I’m also not sure that would be particularly fair to your 39 coworkers who did not voluntarily choose to participate in that.

    3. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      Yeah I would not appreciate you doing that.

  32. Someone Else's Boss*

    I recently attended a work event where the icebreaker was to name the worst icebreaker we’ve ever been asked. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues took that opportunity to both list the icebreaker AND her traumatizing answer to it. So the organizers had good intentions, I’m sure, but we still wound up traumatized (I have thought about her story every day since and I deeply wish I’d never heard it). When I am trying to “break the ice” with a group of people, I ask them to name “Your favorite side dish” or “A movie that makes you laugh.” I find anything more personal than that is just a recipe for disaster. I’d much rather bond over the newest Taylor Swift album than I would over the day my colleague found out she couldn’t have kids.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      I would much rather that someone come away from an icebreaker feeling like it was a waste of time because the question was too pointless than come away feeling like it was too personal.

    2. Kendall^2*

      I’ve hosted meals where not everyone knew each other, and usually default to “something you enjoyed this week”, which feels vague enough yet positive, and likely to get conversation going. Not perfect for a work setting, but maybe something similar would be ok.

  33. Just checking in*

    This is bad. There’s also no real confidentially in an office setting and your company puts people’s privacy at risk for things like office gossip.

    1. Ultimate Facepalm*

      I want to echo the sentiment. I am sorry about the bad news. I hope you and your family find moments peace and comfort as you go through this.

  34. Irish Teacher.*

    Honestly, the whole point of icebreakers is that they are meant to be something relaxing, something to help you feel more comfortable with a group that you may not be comfortable around by “getting to know them” without revealing too much.

    If a group is comfortable enough around each other to be able to discuss personal matter, there is no ice to break and no need for icebreakers. That is a group that is already quite comfortable discussing matters and are ready to go on and discuss work matters. If the group needs an icebreaker, ie they are so unsure of each other that nobody wants to be the first to raise a work matter because this isn’t a group they feel safe in…well, I can’t imagine any group thinking “I’m really not comfortable talking about work matters right away. I’d really rather start with a personal trauma. That’s a much easier thing to talk about to get the conversation going.” A group that isn’t comfortable talking to one another about work are not going to be comfortable discussing their traumas.

    Icebreakers are meant to be something easier to talk about than work, something you know you won’t be judged for so you can say that when you wouldn’t be comfortable making a work suggestion and then you’re already relaxing and involved in the conversation before it gets to anything more difficult/stressful.

    This…is not an icebreaker. Hearing about somebody’s trauma does not relax the atmosphere and make it easier to talk to them.

    This also ignores the vast differences in people’s experiences. My experiences of “trauma” are limited to having had thyroid cancer, my dad dying in his 80s and missing out on being a primary school teacher by 20 points (out of 600). I don’t think any of those “shaped who I am today” in any particular way. I think this could get quite awkward if one person’s experience who shaped who they are today was a fall out with a friend in grade school or their stay-at-home parent returning to work and having to go to daycare and somebody else’s was abuse or something.

    I also work in a place where people do discuss quite personal topics quite casually and it isn’t unusual for somebody to mention their bereavements or that they are taking medication for mental health problems or to talk about childhood traumas in conversation in the staffroom, but there is a big difference in my mind between somebody choosing to reveal something personal and being put on the spot.

    And having reread the reply, I’m reminded of one particular thing a colleague shared (about having witnessed a fire in which two children died) which had me struggling to concentrate on work for the afternoon after hearing it. So yeah, definitely not the way to set up a work discussion.

  35. learnedthehardway*

    Who on earth would think this is a good idea?!??!

    I used to work with someone who would bring up people’s past traumas as an interview technique – it was despicable. Didn’t work with him for long.

  36. Julie*

    At one of our team holiday lunches, our leader asked us to go around the table and tell the best and worst thing that happened that year. It could have been personal, work related, whatever. Didn’t have to be deep or introspective. Our admin started crying and said that the worst thing that happened was her dad died. That question was never asked again!

    1. londonedit*

      This is it – we’re all human beings and we can’t help the direction our brains go when we’re faced with something like this. I’m sure the person leading the session assumed everyone would come up with examples like ‘I failed my driving test three times and it taught me resilience’ or ‘We moved around a lot when I was a child and I learned how to make friends really easily’. But for some people, just being asked the question will cause their brain to whizz through the mental filing cabinet and pull out the worst possible memory. And even if that person doesn’t share that memory, they still now have to deal with it being yanked out of the recesses of their mind at 10am on a Wednesday corporate awayday.

      1. bamcheeks*

        We once had one that was “something that would surprise your colleagues about you”. My brain just kept getting stuck on “did [sexual act] in [surprising location]” and I just COULD NOT make it get past that. In the end I went with something super anodyne and not in the least surprising, like subjects I did at A level or something, which was completely fine of course, but man, I was so scared I was going to accidentally blurt out, “I once [bleeped] a [bleep] in [Bleep]” and nobody was going to know where to look. At least that was only embarrassing and not actually traumatising!

    2. Happy meal with extra happy*

      Why would anyone even want to know the answer to that question??? I attend a holiday lunch every year that very much blurs the line between work and personal (a group of about 15 of us who worked for the same organization some time ago, and many are friends in our personal lives), and one of the traditions is that we go around and give a recap of our year. However, we are a very close group, so if someone chooses to share something difficult, there is only understanding and empathy. And, there have been years where some pass on sharing anything, and that is understood and accepted.

      1. londonedit*

        I think a lot of people see ‘Best and worst!’ as a harmless activity – usually people who haven’t had anything particularly awful happen to them. In their mind, they’re thinking ‘Oh, my best was my holiday to Greece, and yeah the worst was probably that time my car had a puncture and I had to miss the concert I was on my way to, that was pretty bad’. And yes, for many people those things will have been the best and worst of the year. But you just can’t tell when someone – especially in a group that’s friendly but not close-close – might have had something really terrible happen.

        1. Anon for this*

          Then you get the people who are thinking “I didn’t get a holiday in Greece, or even Virginia. But my wife lost her job in a ‘rightsizing,’ my father-in-law started showing signs of dementia, and we had to euthanize my dog that I’ve had since I was 7.”

    3. Buffy*

      This was also presented as an ice breaker question at the first in-person staff meeting back in 2021 and seemed particularly ill-considered.

  37. Baba Yaga*

    Trauma dumping doesn’t increase workplace empathy. I literally had a boss who said she loved those icebreakers because it gave her a sense of “who was reliable and who was weak.”

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      I’m not even sure how she thinks that would work. One of the strongest and most reliable people I know is a colleague who has had a fair bit of trauma in her life. She is one of the best teachers I know because she really does understand kids who are struggling.

      On paper this colleague should be somebody who has a lot of commitments outside work that one might expect to take her attention from work. In practice…she is one of the people that has everybody asking where she is if she is absent from work because she so rarely is. I would say that out of the 50 or 60 people in our workplace, she would be one of the 5 who misses the least work.

      Not that it would be OK if the boss was accurately assessing who has health concerns or family commitments that meant they needed more time off, but…it’s not even a good way of assessing it.

  38. Anon for this*

    We had one of these once that was “tell us your why” (why do you show up for work every day). This is for a healthcare-related nonprofit. People got all into all kinds of childhood trauma, there was crying, it was so cringey. I wanted to hold up a picture of the Amalfi Coast and say “I’d like to go here next year, that’s why I show up every day”. But I also don’t take work that personally.

    1. metadata minion*

      Ughhh. I genuinely love my job, and I can go into all sorts of squishy reasons why I find it meaningful, or fun, or etc. But at the end of the day I show up to work every day because I enjoy being able to live under a roof and eat food and get medical care.

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Yup I have a meaningful job but the real answer is “because disability benefits are really hard to get and don’t cover my cost of living anyway.”

    2. I Have RBF*

      LOL! Mine would be “I like having a job that pays my bills and that doesn’t bore me to tears.”

  39. Spicy Tuna*

    I can’t even think about my childhood without wanting to die a little inside. My young adult hood was also a terrible time for me as well. This “ice breaker” is so horribly inappropriate

  40. Busy Middle Manager*

    The question IMO isn’t bad per se but should be work focused.

    “I worked for a micromanaging boss who fired me even though I was doing well so I am always afraid at this job”

    “I saw coworkers get laid off in 2008 in their 50s and never find work again, my BP goes up anytime I see a layoff”

    “big important customer used to yell at me so I became afraid to talk to VIPs”
    Stuff like that.

    Management delved way too deep though.

    Also I’m not a fan of the theory behind this that you need to have a horrible backstory to truly count as successful or have your voice count.

    You gave me a flashback to college in the late 90s. They tried a light version of this. Half of the class gave a bit of a dramatic story about being children of immigrants, or working class, and the first person to go to college and it’s a struggle to afford it, etc. Thing is, that was the norm, almost everyone late X was first to go to college in their family. So half if not more of the class said the same thing. But people felt pressure to frame these absolutely common stories as these huge struggles and it was cringeworthy enough that I remember it 27 years later. But some people think this is a way to bond

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      Honestly, I don’t think even those answers are suitable for an icebreaker with the entire company. An icebreaker is meant to relax you so you feel more comfortable discussing the issues that might arise and well, I think if I said any of those, I’d be worrying afterwards about whether it was appropriate, whether the boss could have misunderstood it (such as taking the comment about the micromanaging boss to mean I don’t take instruction well) and so on or if a colleague said them, I’d be thinking back on my interactions with that colleague and whether I may have inadvertently made them less comfortable, either of which would distract me from the meeting.

    2. a trans person*

      Mine would be losing my 5+ year, exceptionally high paying job after/because of transitioning. And talking about that to strangers is terrifying because, hey, forced outing and the prospect of even more workplace transphobia.

      1. I Have RBF*

        I’m so sorry to hear that.

        Transitioning should not make any difference to your work unless your job was almost completely gender based (like a women’s lingerie model). After all, your brain is still the same, just your gender expression has changed to fit you better.

  41. Never the Twain*

    I think of ‘ice-breaker’ activities as a means of getting a first handle on your colleagues – something like, the organisers ask each of you for a ‘fun fact’ and then task the group with finding their fellow who was an Eagle Scout/went to school with J K Rowling/can speak Kazakh.
    Having to share traumatic life-experiences would be appropriate, if ever, when a deep level of knowledge and trust has been built up on both sides. It’s about as fit for purpose as an ‘ice-breaker’ as was the Titanic.

    1. JustaTech*

      Oh excellent ‘nym!

      Here’s an icebreaker: what’s a poem you think is interesting.
      (Convergence of the Twain, even though I hate the author.)

  42. Audogs*

    Why do companies endorse this? I’m from the work at work and personal things in my personal life.

  43. BEANS*

    these are so silly. there’s no law that says you have to be truthful in these things. just opt out. and if you really truly can’t opt out, just make up something ridiculous. most others are anyway.

    1. JustaTech*

      Making up a sufficiently plausible lie, that you will remember for the rest of the time you work with these people, on the fly, while listening to other people talk about terrible things (true or not) is really hard for a lot of people.
      Maybe folks who do a lot of improv, or role playing games, or lying in their personal life (for whatever reason) could pull it off, but I’d wager that most folks can’t.

      Also, a lot of people aren’t comfortable lying.

      1. We’re Six*

        I don’t know, I have actually just made stuff up even though I’m both autistic and ADHD (was recently formally diagnosed, debating if I want to bring it up at work for an accommodation). It beats accidentally sharing something I’d rather not, like a traumatic or deeply personal story that is true.

        “Making up a sufficiently plausible lie, that you will remember for the rest of the time you work with these people…”

        I think you’re overthinking it a bit. We’re all sort of extras in each other’s life movies* so unless you’re constantly telling lies (or the lie you tell is SO outlandish, like you’re a direct descendant of John Wilkes Booth or something), I guarantee that people will not remember or care about whatever random, dumb stuff you say at the team picnic ice breaker. I know from experience.

        *to badly paraphrase a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song

        1. Irish Teacher.*

          I would certainly remember if somebody gave a story about trauma and while I would never mention it to the person, it probably would be on my mind when I saw them. No, I don’t remember every answer everybody gave to every icebreaker (though I remember quite a few), I would certainly remember anything that referenced stuff like fertility struggles or abuse or anything along those lines.

          And I would be somewhat…I don’t know; I’d feel uncomfortable, I guess and pretty foolish, if I later found out that somebody had made it up. Like I was worrying about this person’s childhood abuse/hoping they would be able to conceive and it turned out they just…made it up to fit in during an icebreaker.

          So while it’s fun to joke about here, there is no way I would do that to my coworkers.

          White lies like “no, that dress doesn’t make you look fat” are one thing, though I even keep those to the absolute minimum and as close to the truth as I can, but lying about what made you who you are? No, I would definitely not be OK with doing that and while I wouldn’t blame a coworker for doing it under the circumstances, I would be embarrased if I found out, embarrassed that I’d believed them and probably spent time concerned about them over it.

          (And I have at least one coworker who does seem to remember everything said, like she once listed off how everybody had voted at a staff meeting a year previously. Of course, I don’t know if she was correct or not, but given other things she’s said which I could verify, I’d say the odds are high she was correct. And if she can remember exactly who raised their hands for what, I am pretty sure she’d remember who had which trauma.)

    2. Nightengale*

      No but it can be really really hard to make up something on the spot, especially if your brain keeps pushing the true answer at you. Even if someone tells a benign lie, they may then be thinking about the traumatic truth for the rest of the day where it otherwise doesn’t come up at work. Additionally is the challenge of creating a response in a setting where you have to have ongoing interactions with the other people, so you may have to remember what you said.

      I’m actually really good at thinking verbally on my feet in a lot of ways. I interact with patients in stressful situations. I give talks on topics and answer questions in the Q+A. I would not be able to craft a lie that fits the parameters of this assignment within any expected time frame of response.

  44. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    These trauma dumps are completely built to be ego boosters to the people who instigate them – “look at how my incredible program brought tears to their eyes – I bet that really helped everyone.”

    WHAT IS THE INSTRUCTIONAL GOAL OF THIS EVENT? Why are we having it? What is the follow through? What is the justification for the input/output asked of the participants? Will it move us toward our institutional goals in a positive way?

    1. pally*

      Thank you! Yes, what IS the goal here? How will this positively affect work product?

      Not seeing that there’s going to be any remedies here for things folks have gone through. Therefore, what is the point?

      Quite frankly, I’m not comfortable sharing my personal experiences with my co-workers. That’s just me though.

    2. ferrina*

      Exactly this. What did this actually do?

      Making people cry and feel uncomfortable isn’t inherently a good thing. Especially at work!!

      1. Anon for this*

        Icebreakers are supposed to make people feel comfortable, not uncomfortable!

    3. EmmaPoet*

      Yes, I’m not really sure what the point of the exercise is here, other than to upset people.

  45. Punk*

    It sounds like the question was along the lines of “What’s a challenging experience that made you who you are today?” They’re looking for something like, “continuing to cheer for the football team even though I had a broken arm” or “taking a risk on a niche MA thesis subject and it ended up getting published.” “Taking a semester overseas when I didn’t know the language.” I think this is an example of where your company’s focus on mental health had a weird result, because it’s a perfectly fine question, and if you tell the event organizers that it was inappropriate, they’re going to wonder why the people answering this question jumped from “mildly challenging” to “severe trauma.”

    1. Sunflower*

      Because the leadership team asked for severe trauma. Per the OP: “Some of our leadership team kicked off the discussion with examples of fertility challenges, mental health breakdowns, parents dying, arrests, etc.”

      1. Punk*

        Which is why I said that it’s a neutral question but the atmosphere of the company twisted it. And leadership didn’t ask the question. They set the tone with their answers.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        And even if they had not provided these examples, a question so vague that it can be taken in a terrible direction is not a perfectly fine question. It is a potentially disastrously poorly constructed question.

        1. JustaTech*

          I think this is why several people have pointed out the value of an *experienced* moderator/facilitator for things of this general nature.
          Someone with experience (or who spends a lot of time here) will know that these questions can go very badly, and so will carefully tailor the question to try and avoid it. An experienced facilitator will also be able to head off/redirect when someone does start to go too deep with their response.

          But that requires forethought and expense. And hence we are here.

  46. Artemesia*

    This is awful. How about substituting instead ‘describe the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you.’

    1. Garblesnark*

      The top 50 most embarrassing things that ever happened to me were all abuse that should have been reported to an agency.

      1. Rooby*

        Then that doesn’t fit the prompt though? Like I’m genuinely sorry for your traumas and that’s obviously horrible. But that’s… not at all what people mean when they reference an “embarrassing moment”, and you probably have like, spilled mustard on your shirt or humorously misspoken. You can always choose to misinterpret what’s being asked, but why? Abuse isn’t “embarrasing moments”, it’s humiliation, and that is a different thing than what was asked in that hypothetical icebreaker.

        1. Garblesnark*

          The text of the above comment prompt was “the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you.”

          I understand what you are saying, that the intent of that question is not to get abuse stories. People who are from abusive contexts take years to learn what stories are stories of abuse, if they ever learn.

          The intent of my reply is to say that “the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you” is not a neutral icebreaker question for mixed company.

          1. Anon for this*

            Answering that question would be like being embarrassed all over again.

            I’ve had a few times I wanted to melt and drip through the floor. I want to forget them, not remember them and display them for my coworkers to laugh at.

    2. ferrina*

      Nah, icebreakers should stay away from negative things to begin with. There are so, so many positive or neutral topics!

      -What’s a useless skill that you are really good at?
      -What trivial talent do you have that you are really proud of?
      -What was your favorite subject in school?
      -What book or movie have you recently finished? Or if you haven’t recently finished a book or movie, what is one that you really enjoy?

      Or, if you want to cause a little bit of mischeif:
      -What song do you get stuck in your head the most often?

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        Yeah, I was thinking something like “what’s your dream holiday?” or “what TV show do you most wish wasn’t discontinued?” or “what is your favourite sweet?”

        I definitely wouldn’t want to share my most embarrassing moments publicly.

        1. UKDancer*

          Yes. The one I liked best was when we were all asked to bring a picture representing our favourite holiday destination (that we’d had or we’d like to go to) and say why. We got an interesting range of answers ranging from a picture of an allotment (from someone who spent all his holidays there because it was his happy place), to a picture taken on the Hajj (a really interesting story from that one) to Tranquility base (from someone who wanted to be an astronaut).

          People brought pictures of places they’d been, places they wanted to go and places they aspired to. It could be as superficial or deep as you wanted. So I liked that one.

      2. 2e asteroid*

        I don’t know that the “song that gets stuck in your head” question is more likely than any other to point at trauma per se. But I will say:

        * The first three answers I thought of are all extremely work-inappropriate
        * The next two both could easily be read as passive-agressive (“You’re So Vain” and “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”)

        So maybe be sure you’re asking people with a really good filter?

    3. Nancy*

      People don’t want to tell embarrassing stories to coworkers.

      We use ‘what’s your hobby?’ as an icebreaker, sometimes, ‘what place you would love to visit?’. Neutral, can be anything, and people can even make something up, since no one can prove that they really don’t read as a hobby or want to visit Italy.

      1. I Have RBF*

        How about “Name an item from your ‘bucket list'”? Then you get people’s dream vacations or activities that are either aspirational or realized, and it can’t be taken as an invitation to trauma dump.

  47. TKC*

    Had to go to a retreat once where we were forced to do an activity where we shared “a time we felt disrespected” that ended up being the same trauma-dump thing. It was in smaller groups than this, but still.

    I begged to organizers not to do this activity but was told “we have to be vulnerable in order to work together”

    Forced vulnerability, it turns out, is very uncomfortable. It’s validating to read Alison’s answer to a similar situation, honestly. The organizing committee made me feel insane for objecting to this.

    1. Zap R.*

      Yeah, “vulnerability” in the corporate context means not being afraid to ask for help from your colleagues or being willing to learn from failure. It doesn’t mean confessing your deepest darkest secrets to Jeff from Accounts Payable.

    2. Anon for this*

      Funny, I’ve been working for decades without every having to trauma dump to my co-workers.

      1. TKC*

        Lucky you? I’m not sure if you’re implying I’m lying about this or just bragging. But in nonprofit-land this happens a fair bit. Not enough to call it common, but enough that multiple friends/colleagues of mine have stories like this.

        I couldn’t think of an example I wanted to share so I made up something inane rather than trauma dumping myself. That is not the track many of my colleagues took (understandably IMO as we were not given the prompt ahead of time).

        1. Lbd*

          I read it as, the lack of trauma dumping in their work experience hasn’t held them back, and agreeing with you that it won’t help the majority of workers the way that, say, ergonomic chair fittings, or software tutorials, or HR handbook workshops, would.
          With a hint of sarcasm directed to those who would think trauma dumping is a bonding experience.

  48. EtTuBananas*

    I am very, very biased here because I worked in a company where this was the pervasive culture and it’s made a lot of ripples in my professional life trying to understand social norms at work.

    I would be very very wary of company culture. It’s one thing to support a coworker going through a health scare, it’s another to EXPECT coworkers to share trauma and uncomfortable things. In my experience, many companies have a hard time towing that line.

    OP, I definitely think you should speak up to the organizers. You can make the point that it’s great to work in a company where you CAN share this information, but you don’t want it to be compulsory. Make it clear that you mean both explicitly compulsory (like your management says you MUST participate) or implicitly and socially compulsory (as in this case – no one was making you share, but it’s very against the spirit of the directive not to share).

  49. Garblesnark*

    Just another angle on this – people with difficult childhoods have a common experience of telling a childhood story that fits a requested mood description and discovering it does not, in fact, fit the requested mood description.

    I’ve been in therapy for 18 years, I have no contact with anyone who ever mistreated me, and my life is full of supportive relationships. I still try to tell new happy childhood stories at happy childhood story swaps with unanimous responses of “wow, that’s incredibly disturbing.” The same is true of everyone I know with a difficult childhood, and our only practical solution is to road test our stories for the requested mood ahead of time. So I have a few happy stories and a few charming stories and a sad story that isn’t sad enough to horrify that I have memorized to tell on requested occasions.

    But a traumatic story? Asking me (or my fellow connoisseurs of difficult childhoods) for a traumatic story will not go well. It will be traumatic to hear, it will just be weird, or it will be about a tiny detail that was the final straw in something it would take an hour to explain.

    Also there are, you know, actual icebreakers out there.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Yeah I’m still sorting through which of my childhood anecdotes are actually funny vs. abuse.

      1. Garblesnark*

        The sheer number of times I’ve tried to tell a lighthearted story about something cute/sweet/funny I just remembered and my audience recoiled in horror makes me think the well may never run dry.

  50. Traumadumping LW*

    This has all been so helpful, thank you. As part of our wrap up to the overall retreat, many people shared that this exercise was their favorite thing of the whole week. So I felt like I was losing my mind a little bit with how uncomfortable I was!

    1. A Significant Tree*

      This is concerning, because if your coworkers sincerely think that this was a good use of their time, or cathartic, or educational… that will just reinforce it for the leadership and they’ll keep doing this, or worse, introduce more opportunities.

      I have to assume you weren’t the only seriously uncomfortable person in the room. I can’t think of anything worse than having to listen to 40 other people talk about some seriously upsetting things and feel that pressure to offer up something of myself too. And then to hear that a lot of people thought it was great? Yikes.

      You mentioned upthread that this is (otherwise) a great place to work, but this may be headed in a less-great direction if leadership decides that sharing trauma or being performatively vulnerable or whatever is the new team-building.

  51. Pita Chips*

    Allison, wishing you strength and courage with your situation. Also time for self-care

  52. Helen B*

    Alison, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother.

    Also couldn’t agree more about the forced no-notice sharing of highly personal, painful stuff. Nope.

  53. Yeah, I Went There*

    In my 20s – My friends groups had a few men that enjoyed those Truth Or Dare types of games. They finally stopped doing them when I responded truthfully to “when did you lose your virginity and with whom”.

  54. Kristin*

    “Ice breaker” means to get the discussion going – not to be the point of the discussion. At work we use things like “What does summer means to you?” (in terms of our programs) or “Name a book you’re reading now,” etc. If I must talk about personal problems, I speak to my supervisor and relevant staff, if any, and keep it simple and short.

  55. Bookworm in Stitches*

    My heart goes out to you and your family, Alison. OP, the same for you. Sending strength and good thoughts.

  56. Janna*

    So sorry to hear that you and your Mom have had bad news, I’m thinking of you and wishing you strength.

  57. Caroline*

    I’m so sorry you were surprised by something like that. I had a similar experience with a workplace DEI workshop a couple of years ago. The focus was on empathy and inclusion, and we were asked to share stories about times we were bullied or rejected because of something we couldn’t easily change. The discussion groups were small but were intentionally composed of people we didn’t work closely with. I’ve worked here long enough and my role is visible enough that most people know my name, but I do not talk about my personal life at work much. I was rejected by my parents for breaking away from my strict religious upbringing, and rejected by SO many people in my early adulthood because of my religious upbringing, it was a very painful double edged sword. I was surprised by the unexpected dive into my personal life and struggled to come up with anything more benign to share. I wound up spending the meeting with my camera off and my mic muted, crying in a conference room because I couldn’t pull it together. It was awful, and it might have looked like I was refusing to participate for ideological reasons or just checked out. Fortunately, the rest of our DEI workshops have been less painful and I’ve had plenty of other opportunities to participate and lead stuff.

  58. Keymaster of Gozer (She/Her)*

    I have two settings on questions like that:


    And ‘okay you wanna hear this? Let’s go!’ where I’ll say things that’ll horrify anyone into silence.

    Better hope you get the first setting.

    These kind of things aren’t icebreakers, they’re the equivalent of trying to remove a fallen branch in the road by dropping bombs from a B-52. Hell of a lot of collateral damage. As far as I’m concerned the only time I can be asked reasonably to share these experiences is with my properly trained and experienced psychiatrist and even SHE knows when not to push it.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      And ‘okay you wanna hear this? Let’s go!’ where I’ll say things that’ll horrify anyone into silence.

      I could probably make something up that would make them never want to do this exercise again, heh heh. >:)

  59. dawbs*

    not to be that person who beats this drum (but also knowing i am the person who beats this drum), there’s an accessability component you could mention in bringing it up.

    I work with a very VERY neurodiverse group (both my fellow employees, myself, and the students and public we serve- which includes my teenage kid)- and the amount of social acumen required for this exercise sounds EXHAUSTING.
    You have to keep track of the level of emotion, read the room, read the bosses, read your own manager, read your peers, keep your own emotions in check (but not to stoic, so performative facial expressions), figure out something to share (that’s personal- but not to personal. and that won’t give someone ammo to use against you) and keep masking because sharing your diagnosis is probably a bad idea.
    And come up with a script on the fly.

    (reality is that my kid and her speech therapist and I LITERALLY have to come up with scripts for all the stupid ice breakers the first week of school and she’s still a wreck and i can expect a full meltdown at least once that week. But she’s reluctant to opt out and use what her 504 allows because socal pressure on teens is what it is)

    the last time we had an icebreaker anything like this, 2 out of 10 coworkers opted out and i teared up because I shared something benign but i was currently putting my mom into memory care and that’s where my mind got stuck. my boss later apologized because ppl felt pressured and it forced to much crap.

  60. Librarian the Ninth*

    40 people, including managers? That’s completely overwhelming! I’d never be able to come up with an appropriate story and also actually listen to what other people were saying.

    This also sounds like it must have taken a really long time for everyone to share anything more than a sentence or two. That just adds to the marathon emotional exhaustion.

    I agree that the letter writer should feel fine addressing their concerns with the event organizers, but I think part of the issue is with how the “leadership team kicked off the discussion with examples of fertility challenges, mental health breakdowns, parents dying, arrests, etc.” That’s too much! Leadership who care about their employees should not set the tone that intense right off the bat, in terms of what people are expected to share or listen to. There’s no way they can know what a room of 40 individual people can handle, and what might cause distress far beyond what anyone should be expected to endure around strangers and coworkers as an ice breaker.

    Hopefully, the letter writer can also talk to their manager or maybe even leadership? Surely people who are that open about their own struggles, and have the goal of making the space welcoming to their employees’ mental health needs, will also be open about hearing about when they need to rethink a habit or preference. (<– this sarcasm is based off experiences I would not share in a group of 40 people gathered for work purposes.)

    1. Dawn*

      Just a quick question that’s nothing to do with your question, just your name; might you be such a one who would never leave your room without applying your skull makeup?

  61. H.Regalis*

    I would fucking hate this.

    Right off the bat, I don’t see how this would help people function better as a team or make people feel less awkward around new coworkers. People are going to come away from this feeling sad, upset, distracted, anxious, and/or angry. None of that is conducive to group cohesion.

    Like a lot of people, I’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of trauma dumping. As the person doing it, I scared off a lot of potential friends and acquaintances. As the person on the receiving end, it’s extremely irritating. I don’t like having people dump a bunch of fucked-up personal shit on me. I’m not anyone’s pro bono, 24/7 on-call therapist. It’s thoughtless and selfish, and that’s just to someone who finds it annoying. For people who get trauma dumped on where they themselves are actively going through awful things, or have been traumatized in the past (using the DSM definition and not colloquial “something was mildly upsetting”), you’re unburdening yourself at their expense and without their consent, and are making their lives worse. That’s a shitty, selfish thing to do.

  62. We're Six*

    Keeping you and your family in my thoughts, Alison <3

    For the LW, is it something like the moderator led off with, "okay let me tell you about the time my parents were killed in front of me and I decided to devote my life to dressing up like a bat and fighting crime!" or more like a "let's just share something that helped shape who we are as people" and then the first person kind goes pretty dark and soon the whole group is running with it? (Because I've been in the latter situation when that happens and ugh, it's somehow worse than if the former happens???)

    1. Georgia Carolyn Mason*

      Ha, please someone use the Bruce Wayne/Batman origin story if they get dragged into something like this. More people will recognize it than Shakespeare, at least in the US.

  63. Tigerlily*

    It is perfectly acceptable to just say “pass” when it comes to your turn. No explanations necessary.

    1. TrippedAMean*

      Agreed. At the same time, that may get you marked as the troublemaker or the troubled coworker or something else that you may not want to be marked as.

    2. londonedit*

      But the problem is you’ll still be thinking about the traumatic thing, even if you don’t opt to share it out loud. We can’t help where our brains decide to go, and even being asked the question can make our brains leap to the most extreme thing they can think of – and then, even if you don’t say it out loud, you’re still spending the day dealing with thoughts about something really traumatic that you really weren’t expecting to have to deal with while also trying to take part in a work event.

  64. Anon for this*

    I’ve had my share of traumatic experiences. After being forced to share one as an “icebreaker” with 40 people including random strangers, I wouldn’t be ready to work afterwards. I’d be doing good to not be curled up under my desk, whimpering.

    This is so wrong in so many ways. I want to work with people at a professional level, and this is totally not it.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one here (or there) who wants deeply personal experiences to remain personal.

  65. Rooby*

    Normally with these icebreaker prompt things, my reaction is mostly “Ugh, just pick something work appropriate, no one’s putting you under oath to choose something traumatic just because it fits the prompt more.” But this one REALLY seems like they were fishing for specifically upsetting memories.

  66. noncommittally anonymous*

    Ooof. Reminds me of the “Share the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you” ice-breaker we once had. Everyone had to write down their most humiliating moment, and then people had to try to match the person with the humiliation. The person that got the most right won.

    I skipped out and complained to my supervisor. The organizer transferred to another division.

  67. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    I wonder if one of the higher-ups watches “Survivor,” which has devolved from a fun, competitive show to “Who’s got the most pathetic backstory?” in which the host, Jeff Probst (he should change his name to Probes) grills the contestants on any traumas in their life in front of the other players, pretending he’s qualified to do that.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      Heh. I enjoyed season 1: a bunch of people who didn’t understand the game and thought this was a free vacation and a chance to make friends and get on TV–and Richard Hatch. Then season 2 was a bunch of people who had watched season 1 and were all trying to be the next Richard Hatch. Those were fascinating. Then season 3 the producers started tweaking the rules and generally making it obvious that they were putting their fingers on the scales. This was not interesting, and I have never watched since.

  68. Elizabeth West*

    *hugs for Alison and family*

    This is a terrible way to team-build. If I were in a workplace that did this, I’d probably say something like, “I’m grateful our company is so supportive of our mental health and of employees who are going through difficult circumstances. However, I feel like this exercise could be hard for people who are in the middle of stuff, and it feels inappropriate outside a therapeutic setting, which this isn’t. Can we perhaps find a better, more positive way to connect?”

    I mean, someone has to say it, and I’m sure everyone is thinking it!

  69. Ali_otter*

    I’m also sorry you’re dealing with the situation with your mom, Alison. It’s hard to try to be there for her and also grieve. I wish there was a way to be supportive – just wanted to say I’m sorry.

  70. EmmaPoet*

    A lot of my own traumatic experiences involve medical issues. I don’t think anyone needs to know exactly where I’ve had medical equipment inserted, what kind of surgeries I’ve had, and the frankly very gory details. Do my coworkers generally know what’s going on, yes, because I had to be wheeled out via ambulance a while back, and my very compassionate manager knows some more because it’s come up when I was unexpectedly hospitalized on another occasion. Will our communication and trust improve if I get pushed into telling them everything? Not on my side.

  71. Donkey Hotey*

    First, so very sorry this happened to you, OP.

    It drives me up the wall when people decide that trauma sharing with strangers is a good idea. Scratch the surface and often the people who suggest this, the worst thing to ever happen was Fluffy ran away when they were six.

    I don’t mean to make this into the suffering Olympics, only to say there is really no way to know the depths that people have had to go through, often while saying, “Fine, thanks. How are you?” to co-workers in the hallway.

    1. Delta Delta*

      And so, if the worst thing that happened to them was that Fluffy ran away, good for them. Good that they aren’t traumatized. But they’re never going to make the Suffering Olympics Podium with that so either they shut down or they make up a whale of a tale so they can “participate.”

      I prefer the ice breakers that are like, “If someone gave you a yacht, what would you name it” and “have you ever met a famous person, and what were the circumstances?’ Because inevitably someone in the group has a fun story and that gets people talking.

  72. TheBunny*

    First, Allison I’m sorry to hear about your tough family news.

    OP you have my sympathy as well.

    I agree with Allison on the final conclusion but I actually find the prompt to be a little more innocuous for most workplace settings. I’m not saying i think using it was a good idea, more that I’m fairly certain the person picked it thought it was going to be… well not what it became.

    My guess is the organizers figured this would be a way to get to know one another and in a lot of organizations it would lead to stories about family pets and memorable birthdays, all surface level positive stuff. At one of my prior companies a very similar question led to people talking about favorite meals that happened when they were kids. (I can’t recall the exact prompt but it was something to the effect of a meaningful experience as you are growing up.)

    You’re organization is so open that it escalated quickly and I’m guessing in ways that wasn’t in the original plan.

    I’d say something and keep it along the lines that it’s a very open organization and prompts for ice breakers that work for some aren’t going to work for this team.

  73. TheBunny*

    I think I see this slightly, VERY slightly, differently.

    When I first read this, the prompt seems innocuous and like something that could easily be answered by talking about a memorable vacation or field trip at school that made you realize you wanted to build teapots for your career…and, I have worked in places that this would have absolutely have been how it was processed and the kinds of responses received.

    That said, this is not one of those places. And more important, this isn’t news to anyone. I see this as more about knowing the room than the question itself. And, when you know the room of your work, this was definitely out of line.

    1. TheBunny*

      SIGH. Nesting fail. Honestly, I would say where this was supposed to have been a reply, but I sincerely am not sure.


  74. Hroethvitnir*

    Sending support your way, Alison. I’m sorry to hear about your mother.

    As for this… I am very open about living with mental illness and coming from an abusive background – but on my own terms, and it’s still presented kind of… lightly? You just don’t share the full force of stuff that intense outside of very specific contexts.

    Anyway, if I was put in this position I would shut down, and quite possibly respond very angrily if not allowed to demur. I struggle to be that vulnerable with my psychologist, let alone 40 people including strangers and your bloody management team. Hard pass.

  75. Captain-Safetypants*

    Isn’t forcing or coercing this kind of deeply personal, painful sharing a thing that cults do as part of their indoctrination process?

    1. Petra*

      Yes, it is. I’ve done some research into cults for a story I was writing. It’s a way to make you vulnerable. Vulnerable people can sometimes easily imprint more on a saviour figure.

  76. Brain Flogged*

    I was cornered on one occasion, right on the middle of our big boss discourse on a big area meeting (think hundreds of people) to give a “talk” about how my disabilities had no impact on my job.
    Now, I have multiple disabilities, and even getting a job is a long, nightmarish hell. And lucky as I was, that’s not the same thing to other people on similar situations, so I declined. It feel icky.
    Well, guest what the bosses said after that? That I have to talk, to show “those lazy people” (with disabilities) that they should not “complain” (read: ask for reasonable accommodations).
    I wish I could tell you that situation was the exception, not the rule.

  77. James*

    This was supposed to be an ICE BREAKER?

    It’s hideously inappropriate in any work context, but I can’t fathom who thinks this is a good ice breaker. Someone trues this on me then big frosty walls are going right up!

  78. Always Tired*

    I also hate ice breakers and surprise trauma dumping, but why is no one mentioning how this opens up potential workplace discrimination? People are bringing up arrests, health issues, disclosing diagnoses… the opportunities for bad reactions are endless. Can’t we just stick with the usual bad ice breakers? What are you bringing to the picnic or maybe two truths and a lie? If I have to plan the event, I like to ask people’s least favorite foods. That always gets a kick, especially cause I usually say peanut butter.

    My challenge would be the icebreaker itself, and how to navigate the interpersonal and legal rapids it is producing in the river of my life without oversharing or being punished for not playing properly.

  79. Random Bystander*

    I’ve had at least my share of traumatic/life-changing/challenging occurrences. And quite frankly, if asked to share, I’d have to go with “Having survived certain challenging experiences, I learned that it is up to me as to when, where, and to whom I share details of the particulars. And, this is not the setting in which I choose to share those details.”

    Because I don’t know if I feel like talking at all about [experience], [other experience], [another experience], [yet another experience], or [yep, there’s another one] with people who might either be traumatized by hearing about the thing, or feel sorry for me, or feel superior to me.

  80. Vistaloopy*

    As a therapist, I can tell you that this type of trauma sharing isn’t even appropriate for group therapy. It’s just too triggering. Group therapy might focus on coping strategies, education about trauma, etc., but discussion of actual trauma is done individually.

    1. Coffee Protein Drink*

      Always good to hear from a professional in a situation like this. Thank you for posting this!

  81. Mikey Likes It*

    “At our recent gathering, we had an ice-breaker in which we were asked to share a challenging or unique personal experience from childhood or adulthood that shaped who we are today. ”

    They asked you to share a challenging or unique personal experience, not necessarily a traumatic one — that’s your gloss on the icebreaker. Respond with what they asked for. Pretend you’re writing a college admissions essay.

    1. londonedit*

      I’ve said this a couple of times, but the problem with ‘just say something bland’ is that while someone might be able to do that, just the question itself could send their brain whizzing through a mental reel of all the truly terrible things that have happened to them. So they might come up with ‘I failed an important exam at school’ to say out loud, but meanwhile their brain is going ‘Yeah but what about when X awful event happened, what about when Y died, what about that car crash…’. And then all of a sudden you’re having to try to take part in a work event while your brain is reminding you of horrible things from your past.

    2. Irish Teacher.*

      Another issue is that the people starting the activity did share traumas, so even if you don’t share any yourself, you still have the shock of having heard of that stuff. Some of it may trigger people with similar traumas or who are worried about something similar (before I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I had to leave the staffroom because a colleague was talking – I have no idea why – about how you need your thyroid and how difficult it can be to have your thyroid removed. She had no idea about my situation and was doing nothing at all wrong, but this is just asking for situations like that).

      Then there is also the issue of meeting the people who have shared afterwards. Do you sympathise with them? Are you meant to mention it or not?

      And of course, there is the possibility of pushback if you do take it literally, either directly with the facilitator saying, “no, we’re looking more for things like *insert gruesome examples*” or more likely with people being uncomfortable/feeling you are mocking them and the activity.

      Just taking the question literally yourself doesn’t solve the issue. It solves one problem, that you don’t have to share trauma, but it doesn’t share the problem of being upset by something somebody else says or of being judged for “holding back” or of how to interact afterwards with people you now know this about.

      Even for work purposes, I would feel very awkward asking for work information from somebody who just shared that they were going through trauma.

  82. Nina_B*

    Work. Is. Not. Therapy.
    So inappropriate, especially to be led by non-professionals.

  83. Aerin*

    We’ve been doing a series of icebreakers with our training groups to help them get to know each other and management, which is basically competitive show and tell. In its early iteration, we would cap off with a prompt like “proudest item” or “most significant item.” This led to some pretty raw sharing about struggles that were overcome. I was glad that people felt safe sharing that stuff, but it also led us to ratchet back on future rounds, finishing off with a regular prompt like “best defunct thing.”

    (There was also an unofficial rule that it was okay to make up the story behind your entry, with the warning that you would have to field follow-up questions. At one point someone won with a made-up story, got teased a bit, and felt SO SO bad about it. So for the next round when I laid out the rules, I explicitly said that lying is okay to enable people who didn’t have something good or didn’t want to share some thing personal to participate.)

  84. Miss Mantis*

    My thoughts are with you and your family, Alison. So sorry that you and OP are dealing with traumatic family health issues.

  85. theletter*

    I would imagine the organizers came to the question with the expectation that every one has some happy ‘sports achievement’ story that taught them to work hard/trust their teammates/believe in their goals – without realizing that a lot of people don’t have those stories, or don’t have them top of mind as a ‘challenge’. They might be thinking that everyone remembers what they put in their college essays and be able to repeat that with the group.

    They need to rewrite their icebreakers to be inspire reflexion on more positive things.

  86. I Have RBF*

    One start up I worked for had new employees share their “most embarrassing moment” at the all hands when they were introduced. Most people it was getting arrested. It was tacky, but at least it was not about trauma.

    IMO, you should never have to share your traumas at work. That’s a bridge too far, especially when it pertains to death and dying. A lot of workplaces that skew young don’t think about stuff like that.

    IMO, it’s pretty tone deaf to use trauma as a f’ing ice breaker!

Comments are closed.