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Icebreakers: When, Why, and How to Use Them

Icebreakers In Meetings
June 14, 2019 2:41 pm

We’ve been asked a lot about icebreakers and how to use them efficiently. They are a great way to warm up a group who may be meeting for the first time, and help get ideas flowing.

When to Use Icebreakers

  1. As a Pattern Interrupt – helps people to stop and focus on the here and now. Ensures people are present and focused before entering in to the substantive part of the dialogue.
  2. As a Metaphor or Lesson – by choosing the right icebreaker you can create an experience that speaks to the meeting purpose or the core of the problem or opportunity to be discussed. How people behave during the icebreaker and lessons learned can be reincorporated in the facilitated session to further accentuate a point or intended outcome.
  3. To Build Familiarity – especially with people who don’t know one another, icebreakers get people talking to those who they may feel apprehensive to disclose personal or emotional information.
  4. To Alleviate Status Concerns – icebreakers help people to experience working together on ‘common ground’ where status or expertise can’t take the upper hand.
  5. To Set the Tone – a fun icebreaker helps set a lighter tone which may be necessary before entering into a difficult conversation.

When to NOT Use Icebreakers

As Dorothy Strachan states in her book Questions that Work, “you don’t need icebreakers when there’s no ice.” Essentially if people know one another and feel comfortable with their peers icebreakers will be perceived as meaningless or a method for filling time. In these cases it’s best to do a starting exercise for the purposes of helping to:

  • Reveal meaningful information that can assist in helping to identify expectations
  • Uncover potential resistance upfront by identifying concerns and solutions to those concerns for the event

Debriefing an Icebreaker

In order to transition an icebreaker from being just a ‘warm up’ to something which provides insight or learning (i.e. about how the group works together to deal with issues or make decisions), a purposeful debrief is required.  Questions to use during a debrief could include:

  1. What learning did you get from the icebreaker?
  2. How is the learning from the icebreaker tied to our upcoming discussion?
  3. What lessons did we learn from our icebreaker that we can apply to our upcoming discussion?
  4. What did we learn from the icebreaker that we need to keep in mind for helping engage in successful dialogue?

A Generic Icebreaker

A simple roundrobin icebreaker that I use frequently:

  • State your name
  • Tell us what you do (in the organization, as a consultant, back at work, etc.)
  • What’s your #1 expectation for this event (flipchart their responses. Use their expectations as a final technique for determining at the end of the session what expectations were in fact achieved during the session)
  • What is it about you that makes you (this is the fun one! Choose one or two to focus on)…
    1. A great team member (or consultant, project lead, manager, etc.)?
    2. A pain as a team member?
    3. Passionate about something?
    4. An innovator?
    5. A strategic thinker?
    6. Fun to be with?
    7. A collaborative team player? Etc.

I look forward to reading additional thoughts that any of you have, so drop us a line with your comments.


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