What is an ice breaker?When people come together in groups, there’s often a sense of trepidation. Who will be there? Will there be any conflict? Am I using my time effectively? Who are all these other people, anyway? A facilitator will usually come equipped with an ice breaker. An ice breaker is an activity that helps people learn more about each other and find their feet in terms of collaborating towards a shared goal.
Why do we use ice breakers when facilitating groups?
Facilitators use icebreakers to help people feel comfortable in coming together to work as a group. A good icebreaker warms the group up in several ways:
- It moderates the energy level so that everyone’s starting from the same place;
- It helps people get to know eachother before having to work together;
- It can introduce concepts being used later in the workshop or meeting (for example, by allowing people to share expectations)
One thing most ice breakers have in common is that they’re usually interactive, and leave people feeling positive about the session to come. The end result is usually that workshop participants feel comfortable in the physical meeting space, they understand the objective of the meeting and they feel engaged, understood and heard right from the outset. They also level the playing field.
When should you use an ice breaker?
It’s often taken for granted that groups and teams know eachother intimately and feel comfortable sharing in decision making. That’s not always the case. People often need to reconnect and re-establish relationships with their peers. But new teams or groups, especially, need to feel comfortable with the people they’re gathering with.
You should definitely use an ice breaker in the following situations:
- The group is new and there are many people who’ve never met
- There are people attending who come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, ages or professions
- People are coming together from different levels or status groups within your organisation or network
- People (including the facilitator) need to get to know eachother quickly before working towards a common goal
- There are misunderstandings or mixed messages about the reasons why you’re coming together
- People are returning from a break and need to get the blood flowing
- There’s an awkward silence that needs to be filled – especially in a room full of strangers
- Set the tone of the meeting ahead: whether that be fun, creative, strategic, forward-thinking or reflective.
Eight easy ice breakers for your facilitation toolkit
There are literally hundreds of ice breakers you could use for your event – many of them suited to different groups sizes, some physical, some non-verbal, some creative and some simply involving answering questions. If you do an online search for ice breakers, you’ll be spoiled for choice. So here, we’ve gathered our very favourite ice breakers – all tried and tested in real life facilitation events. We’d love to hear your feedback about your favourite ice breakers (or the ones you loathed).
Here’s our favourite eight ice breakers for facilitators:
True or false?
This is an extremely simple ice breaker, because it requires no materials. As it involves every participant introducing themselves, it only works for small groups. Have each participant introduce themselves while making a few statements about themselves. Only, one of the statements is false. The rest of the group decides which statement is false. This exercise allows the person speaking to get as personal as they like while introducing themselves and it allows group interaction while discussing which statements are likely to be true or false. Participants will end up knowing eachother better by the time the exercise is complete.
The power of introduction
I love using this ice breaker in any workshop that’s focussing on communication or personal brand development, especially with artists. Have the group split into pairs with each person interviewing their partner to find out as much about them as possible. Set a timer for 3 – 4 minutes per person and keep everyone to time. When the exercise is over, have each pair introduce their partner in the most powerful way possible. If there’s time for a debrief, ask people how they felt leaving their introductions in the hands of someone else, and whether their partner highlighted the same elements they would have chosen themselves.
Story-telling with random objects
This activity works for groups of between 10 – 30 people. The facilitator collects a sack (a pillow case works perfectly) of random objects. The facilitator pulls an object out of the sack and starts to tell a “once upon a time” story incorporating the object into the tale. As the sack moves around the room, each person builds on the story, incorporating the next object to be pulled out of the sack.
This is a popular team-building activity. Probably because you can buy all the materials needed at any supermarket. The activity works especially well for large groups and gets individuals to think collaboratively and quickly. Divide people into groups of 3 – 5 and give each group the following materials: 20 pieces of dry spaghetti, some string, tape and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the tallest structure with the marshmallow on top.
I love this exercise. It’s hands-on and really gets people to work together as a team to solve a problem – the problem being the need to create a “safety net” to catch an egg dropped from above. Each group gets a raw egg, some masking tape, straws, string, blu-tac, paper-clips and any other random items you have lying around. The team needs to build a structure that will support an egg dropped from a pre-determined height without the egg breaking. Things get a bit messy sometimes, but it’s a great team-building activity with a clear focus on problem-solving, which is a win-win for an ice breaker.
This activity works well with groups of all sizes, but it’s particularly useful if it’s not possible to have people moving around the room. It’s a favourite with facilitators because it only requires participants to have a piece of paper and a pen. The facilitator asks the group a question and the audience writes their answer on a piece of paper before crumpling it into a ball and throwing it onto the stage.
Because you’ll have one piece of paper (potentially more) for each participant, it’s not really possible to read every single response, but the goal is to give a snapshot of audience responses. While you could use this exercise to ask questions related to the content of the meeting (for example “what’s one thing you’d like to achieve from today?”, the fact that not every person will have their response considered makes it not ideal for this kind of purpose – unless you can capture the information in written meeting outcomes or other style of reporting.
Ideal questions, which can act as ice breakers and allow people to get to know eachother (in an anonymous kind of sense) are: What are you most looking forward to today? How far did you travel to be here? If you weren’t here today what else might you be doing? If you were an animal, what would you be and why? What’s your favourite food combination that other people might think was weird?
On the spectrum
I love using this activity to help build a picture of who’s in the room and where our shared knowledge might be. The idea is that you identify a line on the floor (you can do this with rope or tape or just by relying on participants) and brief attendees that the line represents a spectrum of responses. The facilitator then makes a number of statements and people place themselves where they think they sit on the spectrum (from I completely agree or I heavily disagree, for example). There are a bunch of fun and informal options you could start with, such as “I love heavy metal music” or “pineapple belongs on pizza” through to data gathering / scene setting questions such as the number of years people have been working in the particular industry / sector being brought together. For example, how many years have you been working as a musician? How many people do you know in this room? How many grants have you applied for? Or “I believe in climate change.”
This is another super-easy facilitation exercise to help people get to know eachother before a group event. It’s another ice breaker that’s super easy to pull together as well. The facilitator needs to prepare a bingo sheet on paper (preferably card) with a grid of squares. In each square is a statement. Participants then move through the group trying to meet as many other people as they can who can sign off on that statement. An example might be “I’ve never travelled internationally” or “my parents are still married”. Other questions could include things like “I still live in the town where I grew up”, “I travelled more than 2 hours to be here”, “I have green eyes”, “I’ve worked in (this sector) for more than 20 years”, “I never finished high school”. Questions could include topics related to the meeting. Or not. People get quite competitive playing this ice breaker bingo game and you can keep things moving by limiting the number of squares any one participant can sign off on. You can debrief by asking people to share something interesting they learned about someone they hadn’t met before.
Ice breakers are all about warming people up to a day of facilitated activity while at the same time setting the scene for collaboration and working towards a shared goal. A good facilitator will have many ice breakers in their toolkit, modifying them for the group size, desired outcome and time available.
What’s the best ice breaker you’ve ever participated in? And what about the worst? We’d love to hear your stories.