A few years ago my daughter Olivia was attending a week-long foreign language camp for the first time. A week! They were going to mostly speak Norwegian! Dad was nervous: how in the world was she going to make friends?
My wife and I helped her arrange her things in the cabin and completed the final check-in at the medical station. As we prepared to leave, Olivia ran up the steps to grab something from her bunk. She was back in less than 60 seconds. “You guys should go now. I made a friend while I was upstairs,” she said.
Making the First Move
In the work world, it’s tougher to make friends this fast. As we go about our work, we all run into situations where we need to initiate contact with people we may not know well. There are times when we need to bring a group together that hasn’t gathered before.
To help warm up the conversation, we often turn to icebreakers. After all, taking time for deliberate activities leads to a more cohesive group and people learn more when they feel connected.
Yet, we’ve all been in situations where an activity certainly didn’t help to break the ice and, in fact, may have even chilled the room.
Time and time again, I’ve learned that icebreakers tend to produce results equivalent to the thought put into designing them. In other words, choosing an ice breaker as you walk down the hall to the conference room is not going to end well.
Just because a get-to-know-you activity worked well with one group does not mean it will be a good fit with the next one.
Choosing the right type of icebreaker is vital.
Fun and Games Icebreakers
Ice breaker games can be the most fun, but they also can be the most stress-inducing for some participants. This type of activity works best when you have a group gathering for a social purpose, or if you already know most of the personalities in the room.
The goal of this ice breaker is to bring some fun and offer a welcome break during long meetings or training sessions.
Two Truths and One Lie: This icebreaker is usually quite popular. Each participant in the group says three things about themselves — two are true and one is a lie. The other participants guess which one is the lie and share why they think so.
The Best Week of the Year: Each year I refer to the week my family spends at a rented lake cabin as “Best Week of the Year.” What would your best week consist of?
Finish the Sentence: Write sentence starters on slips of paper and place these in a bowl, basket, or bag. Have adults sit in a circle. One person pulls a slip, reads the sentence starter, and completes it. Some sample starters:
This type of gathering activity gets names out into the open plus some snippets of information that help make a connection.
The size of your group probably determines what type of activity you do here. One of my favorites for larger groups is the “2 Minute Circle.” For this activity, pair people off and then form two circles, with one partner of each group on the inside circle, facing the other partner. Each pair shares their name and something about themselves. Then, after two minutes, the inside circle rotates one person to the left.
I attend a weekly meeting where we introduce ourselves like this each time. We often share some piece of info that is related to the week’s topic. Recently, the speaker was talking about a local beer and burgers festival. We were told to introduce ourselves and share our favorite beer or burger. I had a nice conversation that day with Mark, who simply liked my answer: “My favorite beer is whatever one I’m drinking while I grill burgers in my backyard.”
This icebreaker is best when you want to get directly relevant information from participants.
With this type of activity, I have always found it useful to establish one firm ground rule: this is NOT a time for discussion. It IS everyone’s opportunity to share their thoughts.
I often think back to staff meetings I led and wish I had, even in that small group that knew each other well, opened with activities like this. As a meeting leader, the insightful icebreaker allows you to check the temperature in the room right when you start. I usually ask participants to provide three things: their name and department/organization, what they hope to get out of the day, and what is the most interesting thing that COULD happen as a result of the meeting.
An example: “My name is Sean Kelly, with Reach Partners. I hope that we walk out of here today with a firm vision of what our priorities over the next six months should be. My wildest hope is that we come up with an idea for a plan that includes more sidewalk cafes under brightly colored awnings . . . because my daughter and I love to visit places like that! If we did, I could tell her ‘Dad helped make this happen!’”
Right there is everything you can hope for in an icebreaker: you know who’s talking and conversation can flow from it. You might even remember who said it.
After all, who doesn’t want to be the guy who wants bring colorful awnings downtown to make his daughter happy? Choose the right icebreaker and you just might be him.
Your partners in leadership.