Effective Icebreakers for Improved Facilitation
By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler
When you are in a meeting or a training and the facilitator starts up an icebreaker, do you get excited or run for the hills? Icebreakers can get a bad rap for being cheesy or a waste of limited time. However, effective icebreakers are an essential tool for facilitators looking to learn more about participants and create a comfortable environment. Because icebreakers have a reputation for being unnecessary, it’s important that you choose one that fits the needs and purpose of the session you are facilitating.
When MWI trainers run mediation trainings and negotiation workshops or facilitate meetings, we strategically use effective icebreakers at different moments to achieve specific goals. We often ask people to try new skills, confront difficult situations, and be vulnerable; we do this most effectively when we build trust through icebreakers. Below, we provide the directions to facilitate some of these icebreakers and the best time to use them in your next workshop, meeting, facilitation, or mediation. Additional icebreakers are available by clicking here.
We’d love to hear about the effective icebreakers you use in your facilitations, meetings, and workshops in the comments section below.
- Directions: Participants say their name and something about their name. Responses can be about how they got their names, an interesting history of their names, or fun stories tangentially related to their names.
- When to use: This warm-up works well at the start of a meeting or workshop, and it’s especially helpful for groups who do not know one another. It allows the facilitator to confirm pronunciations, start using participants’ names directly, and establish rapport.
Something People Might Not Guess
- Directions: Participants share something about themselves that people don’t normally guess. Let them know that it can be something unique (“I was a child rodeo star”) or something simpler (“I love craft beer and like going to different cities to try new places”), and there’s no reason to try to one-up the person who goes before you. For groups who know one another better, you can give participants the power to veto any response that they already knew about someone and ask them to share something else.
- When to use: This warm-up fits well with groups who have met or are starting to get to know one another. For newly acquainted groups, it builds commonalities and a greater sense of camaraderie. Finding out someone went to the college in the city where you grew up builds a connection and helps you open up. For groups who know each other better, such as coworkers in a corporate negotiation training, it deepens relationships and engages participants’ attention. It’s particularly helpful in a workshops or facilitations requiring improved communication or discussing difficult topics.
New or Good
- Directions: Participants share something that is new or good (or both) in their lives.
- When to use: If you want to start with a less formal and more flexible icebreaker, this is a good choice. It can be done quickly if necessary, but you can also spend time following up and promoting conversation among participants as they share their stories. This works particularly well for groups who work together often and are trying to improve their productivity and communication.
- Directions: Participants partner up with one other person and discover four things they have in common. They cannot use basic physical traits (age, race, gender, eye color) or something obvious (if you are facilitating a meeting at a company, put a moratorium on using “We both work here”). Give them three minutes to complete the task. Then, have the pairs join into groups of four. Ask them to discover three things they have in common with each other. Keep going until the whole group is back together, and ask them to define one thing they all have in common.
- When to use: This task requires ample time in order for participants to pair up and speak several times, so it should be used thoughtfully. If you are facilitating a meeting or workshop with a team to improve their working relationships, especially if things have been tense, this is a great way to highlight what they share with one another. It can also be helpful for teams at a retreat or a meeting to define their organizational mission.
- Directions: Participants pair up and stand across from one another about a foot apart. One person is the leader; the other is the follower (we often decide this by having the leader be the person with darker shoes or longer hair). Ask the leaders to move slowly – they can lift a leg or raise an arm or turn their head to the side. There shouldn’t be a pattern to their movements. The follower’s job is the attempt to mirror the leader’s movements. You can also ask participants to do this with just their pointer finger, moving it around in different directions and shapes.
- When to use: This activity is a great way to get participants moving in the middle of a workshop or meeting, and it works best one participants have already been introduced to one another. It can lead to an interesting discussion about what made it challenging to mirror the movements and focus on the task at hand. This provides a lesson about the difficulty of staying in the moment, anticipating what others might do next, what makes active listening challenging, and remaining focused.
- Directions: At the end of the session, ask each participant to share one thing they learned during the meeting or workshop and what they will do as a result.
- When to use: This is a great way to ensure that all participants leave the session with a learning point and/or action plan. It is particularly useful after brainstorming meetings or meetings that seemed to get off topic. By inviting everyone’s perspective to be heard and considered, this icebreaker is also helpful after a meeting where one person or group of people dominated the conversation.
To learn more about effective meeting and workshop facilitation, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.