Ice Breaker Exercises

See also: Planning and Structuring Effective Meetings

Ice breakers are activities used at the start of a meeting or event to help the group to get to know each other, and ‘warm up’ before the ‘main event’. Ice breakers do not have to be embarrassing or odd: they can be as simple as asking people to introduce themselves and say what they hope to get out of the event. However, the term is usually used for games or fun activities rather than simple introductions.

Ice breakers are generally interactive and designed to be fun. Done well, they can be a really good way to help group members to get involved in the session, and ensure that the event goes well. They can set the tone for the whole meeting. The ‘flip side’ is that done badly, they can turn the whole event into a disaster. It therefore pays to know what you are doing.

When to Use Ice Breakers

Nobody would argue that you need an ice breaker in every meeting you ever attend. How, then, do you decide if an ice breaker is appropriate?

Ice breakers are chiefly useful when:

  • You have a group of participants from different backgrounds who do not know each other very well;

  • Your participants come from different grades or levels, and some may feel reticent about speaking out in front of others;

  • You want people to work together in the meeting, so you need to them to be prepared to talk to each other;

  • You are going to be discussing new or difficult topics; and

  • You want to build trust between you as facilitator and the participants, or between the participants themselves.

It is also helpful to consider what you want the ice breaker to do: that is, what is the ‘ice’ that needs breaking?

There are many different types of groups and meetings. Your ice breaker needs to be appropriate to break the ice in that meeting—no more, no less. To extend the metaphor to its extremes, if you’re only stepping into a puddle, you don’t need to melt the polar ice cap.

You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

Michael Caine in The Italian Job

For example, if your audience already has a strong shared interest, it may be enough to remind them of it by asking them to tell the person sitting next to them how they came to be involved in the subject. However, if your group comes from a wide range of hierarchical levels within an organisation, you may need an activity to remind them that they are all contributing at the same level today.

Designing or Choosing Ice Breaker Activities

When choosing activities, it is wise to focus on two things: what you really need to do, and how you can emphasise similarities between people.

The Key to Successful Ice Breakers

The key to designing or choosing ice breakers successfully is straightforward:

  1. Focus on your objectives; and
  2. Keep it simple.

Above all, abide by one important rule: make it fun but not embarrassing.

Remember: If in doubt, leave it out.

  • Focusing on your objectives means both for the whole event and for the ice breaker.

    The ice breaker sets the tone for the event, so it needs to be relevant to both subject and style. There are many, many fun games that you could use, and they would almost certainly get the group talking. However, would they also fit with your objectives for the event?

    For more about how to develop objectives for an event, you may like to read our page on Facilitation Skills.

    Objectives for the ice breaker itself may be, for example:

    • To enable people to introduce themselves to the group and get to know others; and
    • To ensure that everyone is comfortable enough with the group to be able to contribute effectively.
  • Keeping it simple means not over-complicating it.

    You need to be able to explain the ice breaker in just one or two sentences.

    People may be stressed, or arrive late. It has to be easy to understand and do, or everyone will simply switch off—and you will not achieve your objectives for the activity or the event.

    Simplify your ice breaker down to the bare essentials.

    Pairs, small groups, whole group?

    It is possible to worry too much about the precise format of your ice breaker. Should you do it in pairs, small groups or the whole group? Should you mix things up?

    The answer is that it should fit the event.

    For a bigger event, small groups may work better, especially if you are going to ask people to work in groups anyway. For a smaller meeting, where you want the whole group to work together, it makes more sense to do a whole-group activity. However, if you think starting as a whole group may be too intimidating, why not work in pairs at first?

Some Examples of Ice Breaker Activities

There are many examples of ice breaker activities available, both online and in books. This section provides a few examples of tried-and-tested approaches for various purposes.

1. Introducing People

Something in common. In pairs, introduce yourself to someone, saying who you are and where you are from. Chat a bit to find something you have in common. Finally, introduce each other to the group, with one of you explaining what you have in common. This is good because it starts to establish common ground immediately.

Two truths and a lie. Each person has to make three statements about themselves, one of which is a lie. The group then has to decide which is the lie, by discussing and then voting on it. This is good because it gets the group interacting.

Something unknown. In pairs, introduce yourself to someone, and chat a bit to find out a fact about that person that will be unknown to anyone else in the room. Finally, introduce each other to the room, providing the unknown fact. This is particularly good where some people already know each other, because it makes people think quite hard, which is always good.

2. Developing Relationships

The ball of wool. The facilitator takes one end of a ball of wool, and introduces themselves. They then pass the ball of wool to someone else in the group, still holding the end, and says how they relate to that person (for example, ‘I’m passing this to X, who asked me to facilitate this event’). The next person then has to introduce themselves, and pass the wool to someone else, explaining their relationship (for example, ‘I’m passing this to Y, who I worked with a few years ago’ or ‘I’m passing this to Z, who I hope will work with me on [topic]’). By the end, there should be a ‘web’ of wool between participants, showing how they relate to each other. This is good because it shows that the group is all interrelated, but works best when everyone knows at least some of the other attendees.

Hopes, fears and expectations. In small groups, participants should discuss their hopes, fears and expectations of the event and/or the process for which the group has been brought together. These can be brought together, or they can be left as a small-group activity. This helps to ensure that you meet the group’s expectations for the event.

3. Introducing the Topic

Word cloud. Put a word on a flipchart or board, and ask participants to call out words that they associate with that word. Write them on the board, clustering by theme if appropriate. You can also do this by giving the participants post-it notes for their words. This makes it easier for them to cluster the words themselves. This exercise is good because it shows the scope of the topic, and also gets the group talking about the clustering.

Burning questions. Ask participants to call out the questions that they hope will be answered by the event. This may be best done following small group discussion, to be sure that one or two people do not ‘hog the limelight’. This helps to ensure that the meeting meets expectations.

Turn it round. Use brainstorming techniques to turn your issue on its head and think about it differently. For example, if you are there to talk about how to attract more customers, brainstorm how to drive customers away. Again, this may be best done in small groups, but can be done all together. This helps to get people talking, and also seeing the topic in a different way.

A Final Word

You will not always need to use an ice breaker. However, when you do, it pays to choose your activity carefully, because it can often set the tone for the whole meeting. You have been warned!