What are Icebreakers?

I am sure that many of you, like me, will have had that sinking feeling as we enter a new meeting. Especially when we don’t know anyone. However confident we are, it’s a difficult time.

This is  when facilitators can really help to ensure their meetings get off to a good start by using appropriate icebreakers. These are exercises that enable people to get to know one another and feel more comfortable.  They help to break down the natural barriers we put up between ourselves and others.

How do Icebreakers help?

  1. At a basic level they enable people to start to get to know one another and learn other participants  names.
  1. To learn more about the other participants – this may be appropriate when names are already known but little else.
  1. To enable everyone to speak and therefore make an early contribution. It has been shown that when participants have contributed verbally to a meeting or workshop early, they become more comfortable in later contributions. The opposite is also true.
  1. To start to feel a bit more comfortable in the room – this follows on from the last point. Who amongst us has never had the feeling of discomfort first time they enter a new group? A positive icebreaker can really help this feeling to disappear.
  1. To build trust; the more we share with others about ourselves, and others share with us, the more trust we build up.
  1. To establish a climate for the meeting/workshop etc. This goes beyond the simpler introductions. An icebreaker can be introduced which starts to create a positive atmosphere and in the case of creativity facilitation, a playful fun climate.

In choosing an icebreaker you will need to consider the above points and determine which is the most appropriate purpose for your icebreaker.

Examples of Icebreakers

There are a range of icebreakers that can be used and here I will offer a few examples to suit different purposes.

At a basic level, Self-Introductions, that is that each person in turn introduces themselves, may be enough. However,  these are often uncomfortable for the first few participants. How much do we say, what do we say? We are often rehearsing this while we should be listening to others.

An alternative approach which I favour, is to ask people to Interview one another. Working in pairs, or threes depending upon numbers, each person interviews another and then introduces that other person to the whole group.  Give a small number of questions that could be used, for example, name, occupation, hobbies, and keep the timing tight.

A more energising and fun icebreaker focusing on names only would be a name game. For example:

Ask participants to stand or sit in a circle and introduce themselves using only their name and an adjective to describe themselves using the first letter of their name. For example, I would say my name, Barbara and use an adjective beginning with B to describe me. So, I might start with bubbly Barbara. The next person, say Tom, then says something like trusting Tom, however he also has to say bubbly Barbara first. Then it goes on – the third person may say I am super Sarah, after saying bubbly Barbara, trusting Tom….

You can probably imagine that this soon descends into laughter and relaxes participants who invariably forget the earlier names!

If  more sharing is needed to build trust, you need to use an icebreaker that will enable each person to share more information about themselves.  A fun icebreaker for doing this would be what I call Two Truths and a lie.

For this exercise, ask everyone to think of three things to say about themselves, two of which are the truth and one is a lie. After a short while, each participant in turn states the three things, and after each contribution other participants try to identify the lie. This serves the purpose of sharing and can raise the energy in the group creating a playful climate.

A simpler alternative icebreaker where people already know each other would be for each member of the team to share in turn one thing that no-one else knows about them.

I have also experienced and facilitated more elaborate icebreakers which can take up to a couple of hours and can be justified when the program the group will be following is a long one. Examples have included tango dancing lessons, cookery lessons, and outdoor training exercises.

Finally, it is important to keep the timing tight with icebreakers, particularly with short training sessions or meetings. Make it an appropriate amount of time and manage this well.

What are your favourite icebreakers? It would be great to share on this topic.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently published a book on creativity for leaders with Dr. Tracy Stanley, entitled Creativity Cycling .