To Do an Icebreaker or Not? By Peter Dhu

We have all attended a seminar or workshop where the trainer has said “turn to the person next to you and tell them 3 things you like about yourself and 3 things that you do not like about yourself”. Or “as a group lets line up in order of distance that we have travelled today to get to this workshop – closest up from the front and furthest at the back”. Or let’s play “Human Bingo”.

I hate icebreakers and I loathe participating in these silly “get to know your fellow participants” activities. So, a question I am often asked is “should we start a workshop or seminar with an icebreaker”? The answer is that it depends.

Ice breakers can be an effective way of starting a training session, seminar or workshop. It can be an interactive and often fun session run before the main proceedings. An icebreaker is designed to help people get to know each other and buy into the purpose of the event. The problem is that most icebreakers that I have been part of don’t seem to link or relate to the content and learning of the workshop. Here are some rules if you are planning to use an icebreaker in your workshop or seminar.

  1. The icebreaker needs to have purpose and connect directly to the workshop topic and the learning outcomes.
  2. An icebreaker needs to be safe and it needs to help build trust and psychological safety. This will allow and encourage people to participate fully in the workshop.
  3. An icebreaker should be voluntary and if anyone wishes to pass, then that should be offered as an option.
  4. A good icebreaker is normally succinct and to the point.

Things to avoid when choosing to do an icebreaker.

  1. Avoid purposeless games or activities.
    “In your group, tell others about the origin of your name.” Everyone has an interesting story about their name, and it’s a great way to also get to know different cultures. But how does this relate to your core topic or content?
  1. Don’t make people share anything too personal.
    An icebreaker needs to be psychologically safe. If your icebreaker requires people to share and to become vulnerable too early and they lose control and you are not trained to deal with emotional issues, you could be in trouble. I have seen a workshop participant break down as a result of an icebreaker and the facilitator did not know what to do.
  1. An icebreaker should be relatively short and simple.
    Icebreakers that go on for too long can create boredom and loss of interest. This can be amplified if the icebreaker also lacks purpose and connection to what you are hoping to learn at the workshop.
  1. Avoid icebreakers that require touching other participants.
    I have participated in an event where we close our eyes and fall backward, and our team mates catch us. It is designed to build trust. I have also been asked to pat the person on the back and say well done, as part of an icebreaker. Some people hate this.

Alternatives To Ice Breakers
So if you are not going to use an icebreaker, here are some alternatives to engage the audience, build trust and set the scene for your workshop.

  1. Tell a story.
    A story that outlines the common problem in the room and captures attention and illustrates the key lessons of the workshop and what the successful resolution will look like, will engage your audience.
  1. Outline a case study
    A case study can be a living example and proof of what you are about to teach. It is the lesson in real life and in a real organisation or a real situation.
  1. Solve a problem as a team
    Give a real problem that relates to the content of your workshop and ask teams or tables to come up with possible answers and solutions.
  1. Deconstruct a video as a team
    You can show a video that demonstrates an issue, problem or scenario and then as a group deconstruct what happened. You can talk about what worked, what went wrong and what could have been done differently. I have also seen this done with live actors. The actors act out a feedback discussion for example and do a very bad job. The group then deconstructs it and analyses the scenario.

Icebreakers are just one way to engage an audience and set the scene. If you are going to use an icebreaker, then make sure it is relevant and informative, psychologically safe and does not go on for too long.

Comments 1

  1. Perfect timing for this article. I’m preparing a workshop and hate the whole ‘ice breaker for the sake of ice breaker’ scenario. This was a great reminder to follow my instinct and not use one in this occasion. Great alternative suggestions- thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *