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Not Another Icebreaker!

By Susan Doctoroff Landay / March 2011

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Not Another Icebreaker!

March 10, 2011

I was recently privy to a conversation about icebreakers—folks were exploring whether icebreakers are successful or not. I learned a lot about why some people love them and a lot of people hate them.

On Thin Ice

Lots of people hear the word "icebreaker" and cringe. Icebreakers are perceived as touchy-feely, frivolous, and a big waste of time. Some critics argue learners from different cultures and countries may be even more averse to icebreaker activities than skeptics in the U.S.

Others suggest the dislike of icebreakers may not be so much a reflection of the culture but of the individuals themselves. Are they learners introverts or extroverts? Managers or line workers? Do they know each other or not? Does the technical nature of the course necessitate a collaborative learning environment or not? Certainly icebreakers should not humiliate participants or put them on the spot, nor should they create an overly competitive tone.

Still, despite their bad reputation, icebreakers remain a highly valued component of many learning sessions, no matter the age, level, or geographic location of the learners. Why? Because the benefits of icebreakers so strongly outweigh the drawbacks, most of which can be managed by carefully selecting and framing the activity.

The first suggestion to improve the effectiveness of icebreaker activities involves changing the name.

What to Call Them?

As a marketer myself, I am keenly aware of a brand in need of a makeover. The icebreaker is a sure candidate. Many staunch advocates, who use icebreakers to build relationships and set a positive tone, have changed the name. They refer to their icebreakers as an:
  1. Engaging Opening
  2. Energy Connectors
  3. Opener
  4. Grabber
  5. Discussion Starter
  6. Interrupt
Others don't refer to it by name at all. They don't even announce that they're doing an icebreaker. Rather they simply launch into an interactive, content related learning activity, which will build relationships or set the tone for the learning day.

Why Bother?

Whatever you choose to call them, trainers around the world keep using icebreakers because they are powerful tools. Icebreakers can turn a so-so learning experience into something memorable. If you are unsure about incorporating icebreakers, you shouldn't be. They can serve a multitude of purpose. Successful trainers utilize them to:

  1. Allow participants to express their expectations
  2. Introduce participants to one another
  3. Build a sense of community
  4. Introduce the content
  5. Set the tone for the session
  6. Help get conversations going
  7. Help people remember names
  8. Get people on their feet and get the blood flowing
  9. Engage participants in the learning process and set the tone for participation
  10. Give participants a sense of ownership over the learning
  11. Break down barriers between the trainer and the participants
  12. Encourage participants to think differently
  13. Understand the knowledge and experience of participants
  14. Enable participants to network with each other so they can use one another as a resource after the training has ended
Trainer Madeleine Allen, a passionate advocate of using icebreakers claims, "active and experiential learning always has a higher retention rate, and icebreakers help to get people in the mood and mind-set for this approach very quickly." Clare Howard, concurs, saying "I find that when participants consciously do something or speak up in some way during the first hour of a session, they are less likely to 'drop out' or remain in crossed arm and furrowed brow mode for the rest of the session."

The Right Way

The question, then, is not whether to do an icebreaker, but how to do it right. Let the "three Rs" guide you in selecting an appropriate exercise that complements your goals (relevance), draws participants in without putting others off (relaxation), and is followed up with a discussion that articulates the benefits derived from the experience (review).

Don't do an icebreaker just for the sake of doing it. Any activity you do should have a purpose that is tied to your training goals.

Ensure that your activities are always relevant by identifying your goals at the outset. Focus on this motive as you select and develop your icebreaker.

Once you've found something that will help you achieve your goal, you can opt for either of these methods of "transparent" facilitation:

  1. Tell them everything. Be prepared to share your thinking with the group. Your willingness to explain the method behind your madness will trigger greater participation and yield greater benefit.
  2. Tell them nothing. Robert Manolson suggested a subtle approach. He explains, "make no announcement of your icebreaker, and creatively weave an activity or series of free flowing activities into the very front end of your workshop where the audience has no sense that you are engaging them in an icebreaker. The magic is to give the illusion of spontaneity, being in the moment. Your audience is not at all aware of being engaged in your icebreaker and therefore fully engages with you, follows you and becomes ready for the next phase of your workshop."
People learn best when stress levels are low and when individuals feel part of a supportive community. Your icebreaker should appeal to different personality types and learning styles and set the scene for the next segment of the learning event.

You will need to select an exercise that complements existing relationships. Your ability to assess whether participants know each other at all or how well they know each other will prove useful. Knowing if there are any strained relationships can also help you set the tone. And most important, you should identify any assumed hierarchies among participants.

Be aware that some exercises might push people's comfort zone and work counter to your intentions. Unless essential, try to observe the "don't" list:

  1. Don't require participants to touch each other
  2. Don't insist participants reveal too much personal information
  3. Don't put people on the spot, without an "out"
Finally, at the conclusion of the exercise, engage the group in a brief discussion, whereby they can collectively highlight important learning points. Tie the learning to the goals you established and shared at the outset.

Virtual Icebreakers

Breaking the ice during an online learning event, whether it's a synchronous meeting or an asynchronous course, can be a bit trickier, but important for the same reasons discussed above. Online learning expert, Nancy Settle-Murphy says "online meetings are much more successful when they're kicked off with a brief but purposeful icebreaker, but it doesn't have to occur within the formal meeting time. Rather you might invite participants to informally check in 10-15 minutes prior to the start of a session or encourage them to share a photo." Nancy suggests, during the meeting, you greet each person as they join in and ask a "social" question, as long as it doesn't delay the start time. Once you begin, you may want to announce who is present or start with a traditional icebreaker question that can be quick but give everyone a voice. Depending on the purpose and goals, you could ask a probing question, such as "Give us one word to summarize where you are right now?" or "What skills can you contribute to the team that may not be obvious to the rest of us?" Denise Grissom Bradford's favorite is to ask students to introduce themselves using an alliteration (i.e. Dancing Denise from Duluth). Whatever your predisposition is to icebreakers, don't underestimate the value an icebreaker can create for participants. The focus should be on their needs—how can they have the best experience possible—not on you own reservations. Embrace the need to draw people into your session, in whatever way makes sense for your material and look for opener that will efficiently set that tone.

About the Author

Susan Doctoroff Landay is the president of Trainers Warehouse. She is responsible for all Internet strategy, mailing, design, and other promotional efforts and oversees customer service activities. Her primary goal is to make training and learning more fun and effective.


  • Tue, 14 Jun 2011
    Post by NW

    I suggest doing the virtual icebreaker within the meeting time (same as in face to face class). If it is worth doing, it's worth allocating time to do it. The nature of ice breakers depends a lot on the nature of group and the event. In formal virtual education or training, I would just ask the participants to introduce themselves and say what they want to get out of the event.