Everybody has experienced icebreakers, but what breaks the ice WELL?

Over the years at NSRF, we’ve seen “good, bad, and ugly” methods of introducing people to one another. In CFG work, we value everyone’s time, so we want every activity to work efficiently AND serve the mission of the training or gathering. So we never suggest overly-simple icebreakers that do little more than sharing names and favorite TV shows, for example. Yes, knowing that we both love Grey’s Anatomy gives us favorite characters to gossip about, but what does it do for our collaboration? Practically nothing.

In recent weeks I attended different gatherings that used icebreakers, and, with the perspective of CFG facilitation, I’d like to deconstruct each of those experiences.

NSRF Quotes Introduction Activity — “the good”

A meaningful icebreaker can help bring everyone to the work at hand, support introverts without frustrating extroverts, create ways to level the playing field, and begin increasing trust and a sense of belonging from the first moments a group is gathered. In our CFG Coaches’ Trainings, we typically start with our Quotes Introduction Activity using our Quote Cards (both available to NSRF members on this website).

By the end of this activity, we will learn each person’s guiding philosophies because of the quote they selected, but we don’t do that by asking the question directly, having them freeze like deer in headlights; instead, we “seed” the conversations with great quotes. Plus, each participant introduces themselves to just one person at a time, and eventually each participant introduces one new friend they just met, rather than introducing themselves to the entire group. These steps allow introverts time and space to warm up to the group. Reading from the quote cards removes any sense of competition or inferiority because we all had many great quotes from which to choose. Separating into pairs also reduces the anxiety of talking about yourself to a large group, and eliminates the stresses of “saying something important on Day 1” while still, actually, saying something important because of the quote they selected. Magic! We’re creating belonging, trust, and friendship within the first hour. And when this activity is used with people who may have known each other for years, they inevitably learn new things about one another and feel more connected than they did before.

The same activity can be used with your own favorite quotes around a particular theme such as equity, creativity, wisdom, or learning. Just think about the reason for your gathering, and introduce content that begins leading the participants toward that goal.

One Fun Thing — “the bad”

In contrast, I recently attended a workshop with about 30 other people that used the common “One Fun Thing” icebreaker. Everyone was invited to stand up, introduce themselves by name, tell what organization they work for, and then share “one fun thing” about themselves.

I will readily admit that I was very distracted trying to come up with one “fun” thing to share about myself (what is “fun” in this context, anyway? I don’t want to tell them something personal that’s irrelevant to why we’ve gathered.) I was so distracted that I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the dozen people who spoke before me, and even after I spoke, I was distracted thinking “Oh, I wish I’d said *this* instead!”  The introductions I do remember raised a spirit of competition rather than collaboration: what could I say after a story about someone acting in a commercial with Chuck Norris?! That’s a hard act to follow! And I have very little fear of public speaking, but I know people who would be very stressed to stand up in front of 30 strangers to say anything at all, much less something “fun” about themselves. I’m not sure if it was better or worse that we had an opportunity to use a microphone, but that we didn’t — some people’s fears increase with a microphone in their hands —  and so some people spoke so quietly I couldn’t have possibly remembered their names or details.

The facilitator, knowing what he was going to ask of everyone and having participated in this particular icebreaker many many times before, had no idea of the anxieties he was creating. He didn’t define “fun” or suggest that we connect ourselves to what we were there to learn, he didn’t allow people even a minute to think of a “fun” thing, and he made no accommodations for people who weren’t comfortable speaking about themselves in front of a group of strangers.

Nametag swap — “the ugly”

This week I attended a workshop and networking event for women professionals around a Human Resources topic. Upon arrival, everyone was instructed to write their name on a nametag and, rather than wearing those nametags, drop them into a fishbowl. “You’ll be reunited with your nametag later,” we were told, but given no other instructions. “It will be fun!” I was promised. (Ahh, that “fun” word again!) Then I was pointed at a table of appetizers and directed toward the bar for drinks. I was not otherwise welcomed or engaged in conversation.

So I began wandering around the room, noticing pairs and triads of women speaking with one another as old friends, no one wearing nametags, no one inviting me into any conversation. I should note that I was slightly early for an event that was advertised as beginning at 5:30 p.m. but which was noted on a venue directory as starting at 6 p.m. instead. I had nearly 40 minutes to kill!

When I approached one of the women I had seen earlier standing behind the nametag station, she was hesitant to speak with me because she didn’t know how the nametag swap was going to work, and she didn’t want to break the rules by telling me her name. We had an awkward conversation, each of us wanting to say “what was your name again?” to anchor the conversation and help us remember one another, but we “couldn’t.” (I later learned that most of the women already knew each other and that others were sharing their names without concern.) I discovered that it was quite odd having more than a few moments of small talk with someone without knowing their name. As someone who has to work hard to remember names, I found this extra challenging! Feeling her discomfort, I let her off the hook after a few minutes, and wandered, trying to find another singleton. Finding none, I stopped at a triad that seemed quite animated but who went silent as I arrived. That felt really uncomfortable, so I moved away and found a pair of women who, as it turned out, were talking about their teenage children. They didn’t particularly welcome me or ask me if I had children, but at least they didn’t go silent.

Soon, I noticed men arriving and dropping their names into the fishbowl, which surprised me, since this was supposed to be a networking event for women. I returned to the woman who I’d been talking with earlier and learned that “our” event had been combined with a monthly 6 p.m. networking event hosted by the venue, which included many men. This explains the later, unadvertised, start time. Aha.

Finally, one of the organizers clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention, and then told us the rules: we were to return to the fishbowl, pull out a random nametag, stick it on ourselves, and then mingle around the room, trying either to find the person whose name we were wearing or to find the person wearing our name. Once we found our match (or they found us), the person wearing the “wrong” nametag was to ask the other a question, which they had to answer to “earn” their nametag back. Whichever of us still didn’t have our own nametag had to continue their quest in order to answer a question and get their nametag. There were no instructions on what type of question to ask (or not ask), there were no suggestions on strategies, there was no indication of how long we had to perform this task.

After feeling like I’d already wasted more than half an hour and thus wanting to get on with the workshop, I made a beeline for the bowl and thus pulled the name of someone who’d only recently arrived. I then headed for a table of men who had arrived relatively recently, and luckily found the owner of “my” nametag right away. Since the advertised gathering had an HR-oriented topic, I asked “Is your firm hiring right now?” and this man, clearly part of the “other” networking group, apparently had no idea of the HR topic of the gathering and was taken aback. Then, because I was already engaged in conversation with Shawn (I knew someone’s name at last!), he didn’t walk to the fishbowl, so the icebreaker organizer brought him the fishbowl to select a nametag. I got lucky again, as he ended up pulling my nametag and neither of us had to wander the room interrupting other conversations. I can’t remember the question he asked me — it was neither challenging to answer nor particularly interesting. Even though we’d been talking for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to think of any meaningful question. I later learned that others asked unremarkable questions such as “Where do you work?” Also, after these awkward introductions, the official program began and there were no other opportunities for people to speak with one another and thus get value from our nametags.

Deconstructing the experience, I find lots of problems:

  • It’s disorienting to wander among strangers without nametags.
  • Especially when many participants at a group already know one another, not welcoming strangers is problematic.
  • Having a long period of unstructured time before programming begins without an organized icebreaker means participants essentially must “break the ice” on their own, making the planned icebreaker anticlimactic and useless.
  • The structure of this particular icebreaker rather implies that we’re not supposed to use our names until we receive our nametag back, and the lack of clarity creates confusion and stress.
  • When we actually received instructions for the icebreaker, they weren’t communicated clearly or structured in such a way to help everyone participate successfully.
  • Having a meeting start half an hour later than people expect is disrespectful of everyone who arrives on-time per the invitation.
  • And, it’s not about the icebreaker, but definitely something to consider, planning a women-only gathering but unexpectedly combining it with a men’s group is patriarchal especially if all the women weren’t informed ahead of time.

Phew! “Ugly” indeed!

What does it mean to break the ice “well?”

In NSRF terms, breaking the ice “well” has these attributes:

  • Participants are welcomed and know what to do.
  • Participants meet in pairs at first, cycling through a few pairs before needing to be introduced to the larger crowd (if that’s even necessary).
  • “Hard questions” are avoided, or if they must be asked, time is set aside to think about them first.
  • Introductions go beyond the simplest “who, what, where” facts, and the additional content is related to the mission or the task at hand.

And, not icebreaker-related, but relevant based on today’s post:

  • Nametags are available, ideally along with matching table tents for people across the room, and first names in both instances are printed in a large font making them easy to read from far away.

What’s been your experience with “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in icebreakers?  Please comment and tell us about it!