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Breaking the ice

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Icebreakers can be a great way to kick off a meeting or workshop. Our strategy workshops always start with an icebreaker, and we typically use them after major breaks in longer sessions. Done well, they lift the energy levels in the room, help people to start communicating, break down barriers and build trust and teamwork.

Why use icebreakers?

Icebreakers, put simply, are activities that are used to ‘warm up’ participants in a meeting or workshop. When executed well, icebreakers accomplish a number of things.

First and foremost, icebreakers are great for creating a mental shift for your participants. Most icebreakers are in the form of a question asked to the participants. When your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else. This means that icebreakers can be very powerful for clearing your attendees’ minds and preventing them from thinking about outside issues.

Icebreakers are also great for establishing the meeting room as a safe space for attendees to speak up and contribute. Most of us have some level of anxiety about speaking up in a group. This is further heightened in some situations, such as when we’re in a group of people we don’t know well or haven’t worked with before.

Icebreakers can be used to create reasons for people to speak up, where the stakes are low. In most cases, answers to icebreakers just aren’t very meaningful, so people can feel safe to speak up without risk of being criticised or challenged. By starting off the meeting in this way, you can ‘break the seal’, and make It easier for people to contribute on more important things.

The bane of any facilitator is a flat room, where the collective energy levels are low. Particularly during a longer workshop, the levels of engagement will ebb and flow – and this is totally fine. Different activities require more attention than others from participants. However, it’s important to avoid a situation where the group’s energy flatlines – the productivity of the workshop will tank and it can take a lot of work to bring the group out of this kind of slump. If you’ve done some facilitation before, you’ve probably experienced this at some point and know the signs – the pace of the workshop slows and body language shifts. If you see attendees leaning back with a vacant look on their faces – look out!

This is where icebreakers come in handy. Icebreakers at the start of a workshop will set the tone for the rest of the session. If you start with good energy levels, they are much easier to maintain. With this in mind, we suggest using the icebreaker to inject some humour into the session. Not only will some laughter raise the energy levels in the room, it will also act as a reminder that it’s OK to have a bit of fun at work.

Possibly the most impactful benefit of icebreakers is to prompt people to share information about themselves. Studies show that ‘self-disclosure’ is very effective in creating feelings of closeness. This closeness is associated with the ‘vulnerability-based trust’ that Patrick Lencioni advocates for in The Advantage (see our book summary here). When this trust exists, groups perform better and achieve higher quality outcomes – in part due to people being able to speak more freely and fearlessly. When straight talk is happening, people are less likely to ‘agree’ for the sake of avoiding conflict, more likely to suggest more creative, imaginative and ‘outside the box’ ideas, and more likely to say and genuinely mean things like “your idea is better than mine“.

Download our free icebreaker facilitation guide

Some people don’t like icebreakers, and that’s OK

It’s important to know that icebreakers can also be a bit risky. Done poorly, icebreakers can leave your attendees rolling their eyes, or – even worse – make a potentially awkward situation even more so.

“Icebreakers are horrible and infantilizing, particularly in professional settings. This trend cannot die off soon enough.” – nehneh14, commenter on a 2016 New York Magazine article on icebreakers.

If your icebreakers are well planned and executed, most of your attendees will enjoy them. Even if they don’t go so well, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your icebreakers will work anyway. Fortunately, with a few tips and tricks up your sleeve, it’s usually easy to avoid a disastrous icebreaker, and deliver them in a way that is effective and that your attendees will actually enjoy.

Tips and tricks

Here’s our three best icebreaker tips and tricks:

  1. Don’t spend too much of your valuable meeting time on them (5-10 minutes is plenty). Any more is an over-investment and may be seen by participants as a waste of time.
  2. Avoid icebreakers that feel overly contrived – they run the risk of leaving people feeling more awkward and self-conscious afterward. This doesn’t mean you should avoid activities which require some vulnerability and self-disclosure from your attendees, just try to keep things light and the stakes low.
  3. Prepare well. Consider the context and purpose of your icebreakers. Once you’ve selected your activities, rehearse them to ensure that your instructions to the group will be clear, and that you have any materials you need for each activity.
  4. Start with purpose. It’s important to start any workshop activity by stating the purpose.  It should be no different for icebreakers, whether it’s to increase familiarity, boost energy levels or get people’s ideas flowing.  This will particularly help with getting people onboard: James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, wrote about a study showing that simply telling people the reason for doing something by including the word “because” (e.g. I need to X, because of Y) makes them around 50% more likely to oblige (interestingly, this holds true even when the reason doesn’t make much sense!).

For a full run down of how we deliver icebreakers, check out our facilitation guide.

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