One of my favourite exercises with new teams is ‘Lifelines’. I’ve used it a lot through the years, especially when the team is almost all new. It has never let me down and it never fails to surprise. It sounds simple but seems to generate amazing, personal, in-depth discussions between new colleagues and teammates.

Each participant takes a flipchart page and a pen and draws their ‘lifeline’. The horizontal axis is time, from the moment of birth to the present day. The vertical axis is ‘positive’ above the time axis and ‘negative’ below it. One unbroken line from start to finish, with peaks and troughs and different heights and depths, describes your life.

The highs and lows cover both the professional and the personal. As an example, births of children are often shown as highs, whereas deaths of family or loved ones are seen as lows. Some jobs and promotions may be positive, some jobs or work locations might be negative.

This part of the exercise takes about ten minutes.

But then the group looks at all the resulting flipcharts and one-by-one each participant talks through their lifeline.  Explaining the highs and lows. The important, positive and difficult events, choices and challenges in their life so far. The critical choices made. How they ended up in their current role and in the room doing the Lifelines exercise.

My experience is that people have no difficulty talking through their highs and lows. They may not have talked about some of these things from a long time ago, which had an impact on them, with anyone else for many years. Somehow just writing down a line on a piece of paper unlocks the discussion. And you learn things about your new colleagues that you would never ever know.

The exercise builds trust and understanding. People listen. People are genuinely interested and ask questions.

And it can also be amusing. Such as my new colleague who had apparently been married three times before she was twenty-five, the father of her son not being apparently, one of her three husbands.

But these lifelines have made us who we are. And what forms us, together with trust and authentic leadership that we bring, has an influence on the importance of building relationships required for any successful business or operation.

One word of warning. As a facilitator, if you have had to give an approximate timing for this exercise because your sponsor or leader may be worried about spending too much time on ‘soft’ things and not enough on business and strategy and plans, you may need to be economical with the truth as to how long it will take! It always takes much longer than you think. And nobody minds. Because it is such a rich and valuable exercise.


  1. Johanna Grosgurin

    Hi Gary,

    A very nice exercise. I will try it next time I have a new team to coach. As you say, people often want you to spend little time on “soft” exercises like this, yet they bring so much value! Thanks for sharing.


    P.S. We met many years ago working together at a GBLP for Shell.

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