If you think of icebreakers as perfunctory, maybe even a waste of time, I’d like to persuade you otherwise. Sure, I’ve been in meetings when leaders lobbed drab questions everyone had to answer. They did so halfheartedly. And, I’ve watched charismatic leaders rouse a room out of early morning fog with thought-provoking questions and playful prompts. With a little inventiveness, anyone can create interesting icebreakers that lift up an entire group.

Why use icebreakers

There are two primary reasons to kick off a meeting with an icebreaker:

  1. Icebreakers get people’s heads in the game. Their bodies may be there but their minds often are somewhere else. When people have to speak to the collective, they bring themselves present mentally and emotionally. They fully arrive.
  2. A good icebreaker sets the tone for what’s to come. Whether it’s a short team meeting or a multi-day retreat, good work will get done faster if the group has momentum and direction from the start.

Of course, there are other benefits, too. Like giving people a way to get to know each other by simply listening to what they have to say, and breaking the internal ice people feel the first time they speak up.

What makes a good icebreaker

Choosing a suitable icebreaker isn’t a matter of flipping through a list of clever or profound questions. Those may end up being a fit. But I don’t think great design begins with retrofitting a powerful question from a book or the last meeting you attended. The key elements to consider are:

  1. The goals of the meeting. What are people there to accomplish together?
  2. The nature of the relationships between people. Are they being introduced for the first time? Are they collaborators or antagonists?
  3. Their readiness level. How much greasing does the wheel need before folks are ready to get to work?
  4. The right frame of mind. What headspace is ideal for brainstorming, for decision-making or for information sharing?
  5. Brevity. How quickly can you run through the icebreaker to maximize time for their other work?

Taking these five factors into consideration, you can sense where to pitch your icebreaker. Avoid going too low, too high or too wide. You don’t want to bore them, be irrelevant or get too personal.

Fun is fine

I worked with a creative team on its annual all-day session. It was a Friday in August under the shadow of the pandemic, so everyone logged in from home. Team members had been missing each other. So, one of the goals of the day was to reconnect. Considering all those factors, I created an icebreaker to take advantage of their #workfromhome status and their genuine fondness for one another. We set up a show-and-tell. They were asked in advance to feature an item from their home and share the story behind it. It would offer a rare glimpse into their life and history. Moreover, the exercise was uniquely suited to a rare window in time. Before, they left home to go to the office. Now, home was the office.

Everyone came prepared. As they showcased their collections, hand-made creations, photographs, even an antique stove, people hooted and hollered. They were in awe of each person’s talent outside of work. One team member, when nudged by her colleagues, even picked up her guitar and sang a song on the spot. The icebreaker turned out to be a highlight of the day.

A leadership development opportunity

The person leading the icebreaker needn’t be the top authority in the room or the person who asked for the meeting. In fact, the icebreaker exercise can become a multi-way development opportunity. First for the guide as they design and facilitate it. Then, for every participant as they:

  • share authentically
  • speak saliently
  • role-model professionalism, no matter how the exercise turns out

Start here and keep going

Often, people need to hear basic information about one another. No problem. Start with one or two of these:

  • Name
  • Role / Organization
  • Number of years in the role or on the project
  • Physical location

But these won’t wake anyone up so don’t stop there! Ask them to share something about their work or their life — tailored in response to the five key elements above.

Parting icebreaker tips

Demonstrate. Show how it works by answering the icebreaker yourself after giving instructions. Alternatively, prearrange for one of the participants to go first (after you coached them privately in advance to be succinct). When the first person demonstrates brevity, others are prone to be brief, too.

Divide & conquer. If you have too many people in the group and can get by without everyone hearing from everyone else, consider splitting into small groups. Four to seven is a good size. IOnvite them to converge with folks they don’t already know well.

Sometimes the icebreaker is a bust. It happens to the best of us. Icebreakers can fall flat or, worse, flip the room into higher states of anxiety. Facilitators understand there’s no knowing where a group will go with the questions that are posed. Even when folks work for the same organization, they are individual agents motivated by personal agendas, values and identities. So, don’t take it personally. Learn from what didn’t go well and put those takeaways to good use the next time.