Let’s Do an Icebreaker!

So often, those words are met with groans of disappointment, rolled eyes, and commiserating glances or comments with those at our table or on our Zoom screens. Here we go, another 15 minutes wasted looking silly in front of colleagues and collaborators. Notebooks are set aside, windows are reluctantly minimized to focus on Zoom, and the facilitator begins to describe the activity, dragging the group along with them.

And yet, after the icebreaker is over, something has changed. Maybe you learned something about your coworkers that helps you feel more connected to them. Maybe you feel more energized, like your morning coffee has finally kicked in. Maybe you’ve had an unexpected revelation about the topic of the seminar or session. Or maybe, just maybe, for 15 minutes you set aside your mountain of worries and actually had some fun!

Are you surprised?

Your facilitator isn’t.

Icebreaker activities are often misconstrued as superfluous timewasters, but – when used well – they add tangible value to workshops, sessions, or even meetings. A well-placed icebreaker or opening activity can introduce a topic, foster connection among a group of strangers, and set the tone for group engagement for the rest of the event. Icebreakers or similar activities can be used after breaks to refocus a group or adjust the energy in a room. This is particularly useful for multi-hour or all-day events; an energizing icebreaker right after lunch can successfully counter that post-meal slump and help the group focus again.

Icebreakers can also be more subtle. Posing a broad but relevant question at the beginning of a meeting and going around the group for responses meets the definition of an icebreaker. And it doesn’t have to be a newly-formed group for an icebreaker to add value! Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, shares that the people we interact with most frequently are often the people we listen to the least. Simple get-to-know-you questions or conversation starters are wonderful ways to increase connection within a team, even a team that has been working together well for months or even years.

When you are in the role of facilitator – of a large event or a simple meeting between colleagues – consider the value one of the following icebreakers might add to your session.

Weather Reporting. At the beginning of a meeting, session, or event, have everyone share a one- or two-word weather report that represents their current state of mind.Just one word from each person… this icebreaker can take less than a minute in a small group! But it provides you as the facilitator with valuable insight. “Sunny” or “partly cloudy” are weathers that are ready to engage or learn something new. If half of the room is “stormy” or experiencing a “hurricane” or “blizzard,” proceed with care when introducing anything new, strenuous, or sensitive.

Creative Thinking. What are 5 uses for an object in front of you? This icebreaker, like Weather Reporting, requires absolutely no preparation on the part of the facilitator. Just ask the question and let the group roll! Some answers will be practical, others will be funny, and others will be downright ridiculous. Let the laughter raise the energy level and the creativity of the exercise open the minds of your audience to think critically about what you will share next.

Conversation Cards. Boxes of conversation cards are available for purchase from a variety of online retailers. Alternatively, you could simply Google a list of get-to-know-you questions and use those… or write your own! Be sure the tone of your questions reflects a professional workplace, but don’t be afraid to have some fun and let the questions step outside the box. Begin a meeting by selecting a question randomly or deliberately choosing a question that aligns with your topic or the energy level you would like to create.

Human Bingo. Many of us have played a version of this at a summer BBQ or Holiday party, with varying levels of success. You arrive and are handed a sheet of paper with boxes of facts such as “born in July” which you then try to fill with names as you mingle. However, if you replace the facts with questions, this activity is much more effective! It is far more engaging to discuss “What is your favorite summer dessert?” than birth months. Participants will write the name of the person they spoke with about that topic in the box, and completed Bingo sheets can be entered into a prize draw at the end of the evening.