Imagine this. You are sitting in a room of strangers and coworkers, all of who are in the same field as you so it’s important that you don’t mess up. The facilitator wants you to say what the last book you read was and why it inspired you. Oh no! The last thing you read was the Netflix schedule. And that inspired you to watch Outlander, for reasons you don’t want to go into. Aargh! What book can you come up with that sounds good? You once flicked though Nelson Mandela’s biography. That sounds interesting. Phew! NOOOO, the person next to you said that. Now you can’t use it. All eyes are on you. Why is the facilitator doing this to you?
Why is the facilitator doing this to you?
Why do facilitators use icebreakers? Well, since so many facilitators do it, there must be some great reasons. And here they are:
- It does what it says it does; it breaks the ice. It means that everyone has spoken, which makes it easier, in theory, for them to speak again.
- They can help people build a team. If you need people to work together effectively for a day or days, you want them to start as soon as possible.
- It helps people get to know each other, their organizations and their learning group for the rest of the training.
- It helps the facilitator get to know the group.
- It’s fun. Or at least it should be.
Poorly thought out or inappropriate icebreakers do the opposite. They make the group dislike each other, decrease trust and it isn’t fun. There are some really basic rules to follow to break the most ice with the least pain:
- No touching. Just really no touching at all should be required. Passing objects is normally fine.
- Linked to this is being careful about how much you expect people to trust each other. Try not to force trust.
- No personal information or assumptions. Not everyone reads, or is in a relationship or likes animals or goes away on vacation. Don’t assume people’s lives are the same. Remember and celebrate difference.
- Don’t go too far out of people’s comfort zone. A lot of facilitators like groups; some come from a performing arts or drama background. Hardly any have serious social anxiety or hate speaking in public. But some of the group may. Pretending to be an animal might be fun for facilitators, but it won’t be for most attendees.
- Nothing that will effect someone’s professional life. Sharing is great. Expecting people to be very vulnerable is not.
- Try not to use the same old icebreakers. Or put anyone on the spot. “Why are you here and what do you hope to learn?” sums this up. Someone might be there because there was money in the training budget or no one else wanted to go and they have no idea what they hope to learn. That’s your job, surely… You also run out of unique answers quickly and everyone may say, “same as Bob”.
- Keep a focus on culture and specific needs. Some cultures have a strong oral tradition, so do some workplaces. Some people find eye contact important, some avoid it. Expecting everyone to share in the same way can be ineffective.
- Facilitate. If someone is clearly uncomfortable, deal with this in a way that facilitates learning and promotes group integration. Don’t allow shaming or bullying.
- Know the purpose of your icebreaker. You may love a certain icebreaker but if it doesn’t work for your purpose, ditch it.
Where can you find really good icebreakers?
- The internet is great. There are thousands of websites, blogs, and wikis about icebreakers. The trick is to be able to work out which work well. Try a few.
- There are lots of books on the subject, and more widely about group work. Some are extremely specific and some are more general. Some will be focused on smaller groups, some on workplace groups. Second-hand bookshops have a lot to look through and it won’t break the bank.
- Remember good icebreakers when you participate in training. And ask your coworkers to as well. This gives you icebreakers that already worked once. Ask people in your workplace which ones they like. Particularly those coworkers who are less outspoken.
- Try some and then ask for feedback. If you facilitate a few days of training, ask people on the last day about the icebreaker at the beginning. They will probably be honest with you at that point. Especially if they feel that you are asking to change things for the better.
Some of my favorite icebreakers.
1. To open the first day of RentSmart. Where is the best place you’ve ever lived and why?
Why it works: It is relevant, incudes everyone (everyone has lived somewhere), gets people talking, not too personal.
What to avoid: Specificity. You can say, “it could be a country, town, place or kind of housing, or who you were living with”. Let people know that they can be vague.
2. To open a later day of RentSmart. Who would play you in the film, cartoon or play of your life?
Why it works: It is fun, not too personal, gives people the chance to do a one-word or a longer contribution.
What to avoid: Follow up questions if people don’t look like they want to say. If all they want to say is ‘Tom Cruise’, let them and move on.
3. After a break. Pick something out of your pocket or purse and share with the group why it’s important to you?
Why it works: It is short and can be very impersonal or personal depending on what the person wants to share.
What to avoid: I wouldn’t do this exercise first. Leave it until people know each other a bit better.
4. Ending a session. Tell us something you will ‘take away’ from the training?
Why it works: At this point you have a team, the group is bonded and you can ask more probing questions. It sums up and focuses learning.
What to avoid: Telling people what you want to hear. Let them identify their own takeaways