Career & Success

Cold Open: Break the Ice by Looking Inside Someone’s Fridge

How your leftovers can spark a meaningful conversation.

March 01, 2022

| by Kevin Cool
An open refrigerator that's clean and brightly lit, full of fruit, vegetables and junk food. | iStock/AndreyPopov.

Just don’t look in the back of the vegetable drawer. | iStock/AndreyPopov

In her recent book Creative Acts for Curious People, Stanford executive director Sarah Stein Greenberg, MBA ’06, offers 81 chapters of advice, tips, exercises, and activities for nurturing creativity and collaboration. There’s a warm-up involving a zombie apocalypse. Then there’s The Banana Challenge and The Hundred-Foot Journey Map and First Date, Worst Date.

One of our favorites is What’s in Your Fridge? Developed by Lia Siebert, MBA ’07, the vice president for product and design at Cleo, this icebreaker uses something familiar to reveal fresh perspectives. Here’s how it works:

  • Put people in pairs and ask them to share photos of the inside of their refrigerators.
  • Invite observations from each partner about the other’s fridge. What did they notice? What do the contents imply about the person? Siebert urges participants to “ask ‘why’ a lot.” Put the photographs side-by-side and talk about the differences.
  • Encourage partners to probe when they sense an emotional response to a question. “You know you’re doing well if you start to hear family stories, embarrassed laughter, pride, fears, hopes, or rituals,” Greenberg writes.

A similar exercise could feature a bathroom cabinet, a car trunk, or a bookshelf, Greenberg notes. “The trick is to select something thematically related to your work that’s more personal than you would generally show a stranger, but not so private that you can get people talking.”

Siebert says she got the idea while working with people in healthcare focused on childhood obesity. What is in a person’s refrigerator may reflect norms and habits. Or not.

“What people think they should do is often very different from what they actually do,” Siebert says in Creative Acts. “In that gap lie important insights about beliefs, values, barriers, challenges, and motivations. Once you get people talking within this gap, you reveal many opportunities for creative solutions.”

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