Ice breakers

Ice breakers can be an effective way of starting a training session or team-building event. They help people get to know each other and buy into the purpose of the event.

By getting to know each other, getting to know the facilitators, and learning about the outcomes of the event, people can become more engaged in the proceedings and so contribute more effectively towards a successful outcome.

The secret of a successful ice breaker is to design it with the meeting’s outcomes in mind and make sure it is appropriate and comfortable for everyone involved.

When to use icebreakers

As the name suggests, these sessions are designed to “break the ice” at an event or meeting.

Consider using an ice breaker when:

  • Participants come from different backgrounds.
  • People need to bond quickly so as to work towards a common goal.
  • Your team is newly formed.
  • The topics you are discussing are new or unfamiliar to many people involved.
  • As facilitator you need to get to know participants and have them know you better.

What “ice” do you need to break?

When designing your ice breaker, think about the “ice” that needs to be broken. If you are bringing together like-minded people, the “ice” may simply reflect the fact that people have not yet met. If you are bringing together people of different levels in your organisation for an open discussion, the “ice” may come from the difference in status between participants. If people are from different backgrounds, cultures and outlooks , then the “ice” may come from people’s perceptions of each other.

You’ll need to handle these differences sensitively. Only focus on what’s important to your event. (Remember, you want to break some ice for your event, not uncover the whole iceberg!) It’s usually best to focus on similarities (rather than differences), such as a shared interest in the event’s outcome.

Designing your icebreaker

The key to success is to make sure that the activity is specifically focused on meeting your outcomes and appropriate to the group of people involved. Once you have established what the “ice” is, the next step is to clarify the specific outcomes for the ice breaker.

With clear outcomes, you can start to design the session. Ask yourself questions about how you will meet the outcome. For example:

  • “How will people become comfortable with contributing?
  • “How will you establish a level playing field for people with different levels and jobs?
  • “How will you create a common sense of purpose?”

These questions can be used as a checklist once you have designed the ice breaker. As a further check, you should also ask yourself how each person is likely to react to the session. Will participants feel comfortable? Will they feel the session is appropriate and worthwhile?

How long should the icebreaker be?

Design your ice breaker in proportion to the length of the meeting or session. For a one hour meeting, no more than five minutes as people will want to get down to business. For a day-long session, 15 minutes is probably about right but it will depend on what your outcomes are for the session. If you need to “go deep” ie, discuss challenging topics, or gather personal information, then you might want more time breaking the ice.

Ideas for icebreakers

These are used to introduce participants to each other and to facilitate conversation amongst them.

Something interesting about me: ask participants to share their name, department or role in the organisation, length of service, and something interesting about themselves. This “thing” becomes a humanising element that can help break down differences and build connections. It’s harder to have conflict with someone who you have seen as human.

Two truths and a lie: ask your participants to introduce themselves and make three statements about themselves, one of which is false. Now get the rest of the group to vote on which fact is false. As well as getting to know each other as individuals, this exercise helps to start interaction within the group.

Interviews: ask participants to get into twos. Each person then interviews his or her partner for a set time while paired up. When the group reconvenes, each person introduces their interviewee to the rest of the group.

People Bingo: If you already know a few things about the participants, create a list of interesting facts about them, like “plays a musical instrument” or “always does the morning quiz”.  If you don’t know the participants very well, use more general descriptions that probably apply to multiple people, like “is fanatical about coffee”, “has been on holiday to Europe”. Now create bingo cards where each number square has one of these descriptions written in it.  These sheets are handed to participants who will then talk to each other in an effort to find someone who matches one of the squares.  When they do find someone who “is fanatical about coffee”, that person signs their bingo square.  The first person to reach 10 signed squares wins.

Guess Who: Each participant in the group writes a very interesting or unusual fact about themselves on a piece of paper.  The group facilitator then reads out the responses and the group guesses which person wrote the interesting fact!

Question Ball: Buy a large beachball and write some icebreaker questions on its surface.  Things like “What is your favorite place to go on holiday?”, “What is your perfect Sunday morning?”.  Or make the questions relevant to the session. Throw the ball to a random participant in the group and ask them to answer the question that their right-hand index finger falls on.  You can elicit responses from the entire group and help them learn more about one another.

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