Ice Breakers

Establish Your Purpose

For many who call themselves facilitators, using icebreakers is simply part of the profession.  How do you use ice breakers?  And when do you use them? Recently, someone asked the following question:

“I’ve got a Board/Staff planning retreat on Saturday with mostly West Oakland stakeholders… young & old. Can’t imagine they will appreciate the standard icebreakers. Any great ideas? “

In our course, The Effective Facilitator, we teach facilitators a simple principle – It’s all about purpose.  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?” Activities like these may make sense if your purpose is to prepare people to be transparent or to lay a foundation for understanding how people see themselves. However, we prefer engagement activities such as these be designed around achieving a specific purpose that contributes to the success of the session.

Examples of Ice Breakers Purpose

  • If your purpose is to simply get people engaged early, consider getting them involved in a team activity which we call “dump and clump” – work in teams for four minutes to get on individual post-its 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 the activity “breaks the ice.”
  • 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 30seconds 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 icebreakers it’s all about purpose.  Respect people’s time by ensuring every moment in your session is used purposefully!

Interested in learning more facilitation techniques?  Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.

About the Author

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, and a much sought after trainer, facilitator and speaker.  He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a Certified Professional Facilitator.  As a past president of the Southeast Association of Facilitators and a board member of the National Institute of Facilitation, Michael is a national leader in the facilitation industry.  You can get more tips from either of Michael’s books, The Secrets of Facilitation or The Secrets to Masterful Meetings.