For many who call themselves facilitators or those who frequently lead group meetings, using ice breakers is simply part of the profession. Important questions to consider – how do you use ice breakers?  And, when do you use them?

Someone asked me, “I’ve got a board/staff planning retreat on Saturday with mostly West Oakland stakeholders – young and old. Can’t imagine they will appreciate the standard ice breakers. Any great ideas?”

In our course, The Effective Facilitator, when it comes to ice breakers, we teach facilitators and facilitators-in-training the simple principle: “It’s all about purpose.”  We believe that every activity in a session should contribute to the session’s purpose. Therefore, I generally don’t like the use of ice breakers per se because I see many facilitators get completely off purpose in the name of “breaking the ice.”  Facilitators often resort to activities such as, “Tell us your most embarrassing moment,” or “If you were a car, what part of the car would you be?”

Now, let’s be clear. Talking about your most embarrassing moment makes a lot of sense – if the purpose of your session is to focus on strategies for dealing with embarrassing moments. If it’s not, let’s leave that ice breaker at home.  In the same way, if one of the purposes of your session is for people to gain greater insights into one another, then talking about what part of a car you would be certainly contributes to that purpose. However, if your session’s purpose does not include such insights, you may find your attendees concerned that you might be asking them to hold hands and sing, “Kumbaya,” next!

Accordingly, we prefer that engagement activities such as ice breakers be designed specifically around achieving a specific purpose that contributes to the success of the session.

For example:

  • If your purpose is to simply get people engaged early, consider getting them involved in a team activity that we call “Dump and Clump” – work in teams for four minutes to get on individual Post-its (or sticky notes) the most important issues that the strategic plan must address (DUMP) and then have these grouped by the participants (CLUMP). Then, review the agenda and have the group identify where in the proposed agenda each clump will be addressed.  This gives buy-in to the agenda, allows you to adjust the agenda right up front, and let’s people know what issues won’t get addressed in the session.  And, by the way, the activity “breaks the ice,” too.
  • If your purpose is for people to know each other better in a way that will help them work more functionally, consider a process we call “Gifts and Hooks.”  Ask participants to write their names on the top of four Post-its. (We use 3 green and 1 pink for this.)  We then ask them to record on each green Post-it a gift they bring to the group (e.g., knowledge of the industry, insights into what hasn’t worked in the past) and, on the pink Post-it, the one thing that must happen to keep them fully engaged (e.g., focusing on results, keeping the environment open).  People then come up and take about 30 seconds to share their gifts and hooks.  The facilitator posts these in groups to show commonalities and to ensure everyone understands what will keep people engaged.

Remember, with ice breakers it’s all about purpose.  Respect people’s time by ensuring every moment in your session is used purposefully!

More techniques are taught and practiced in the following forums:

  • FOUR-DAY hands-on training course, The Effective Facilitator – this course provides a comprehensive, structured approach plus over 100 techniques for leading groups toward better results.
  • TWO-DAY meeting facilitation training, Facilitating Masterful Meetings – where you will learn a proven framework for preparing for, executing, and closing successful meetings.