What Is an Icebreaker?

Icebreakers Warm Up the Room and Engage Participants in Any Meeting

group of young professionals standing in a circle with their hands in the air doing a group icebreaker activity
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An icebreaker is an activity, game, or event that is used to welcome attendees and warm up the conversation among participants in a meeting, training class, team building session, or another event. Any event that requires people to comfortably interact with each other and a facilitator is an opportunity to use an icebreaker.

An effective icebreaker will warm up the conversation in your training class or meeting, reinforce the topic of the session, and ensure that participants enjoy their interaction and are engaged in the session. The icebreaker, used effectively, does break the proverbial ice in a meeting.

Icebreakers When Participants Don't Know Each Other

When participants don’t know each other, the icebreaker will help them introduce themselves to the other participants. The icebreaker is the most effective tool to begin to engage the interest and encourage the participation of attendees in a meeting or a training or team building session. A well-selected icebreaker makes people comfortable enough to speak up.

Icebreakers When Participants Know Each Other

When meeting participants do know each other or are participating in a regularly scheduled meeting, an icebreaker is still effective to warm up the conversation. In a mid-sized manufacturing company, participants in a department's scheduled weekly meetings took turns bringing an icebreaker to lead at the start of the meeting.

These icebreakers did warm up the conversation and build employee interaction. They also helped participants to develop meeting leadership skills which made them more effective in their role as team leaders.

3 Main Types of Icebreakers

Three main types of icebreakers are used in these meetings. The first type of icebreaker is just for fun. When participants know each other, laughter and conversation generated by the icebreaker, warm up the group. When participants are strangers, the ice is broken and participants learn something about each other.

This ensures that introductions and initial conversations occur; these are key to make sure that participants enjoy and find value in the session. The following are examples of icebreakers you will want to use when fun and comfortable conversations are the goals.

Icebreakers for Conversations

Icebreakers As a Segue Into the Topic of the Meeting

The second type of icebreaker introduces or segues into the topic of the training session or meeting. It might also generate laughter and conversation, but its clear purpose is to open up the topic of the session.

Sample Icebreaker

An example of this type of icebreaker is asking the group to identify the characteristics of their best team experience to introduce a session on team building.

Here are additional formats that you can use for icebreakers. 

Icebreakers As an Activity Based on the Reason for Meeting

The third type of icebreaker is an activity based on the purpose of the session. Participants engage in an activity to explore and improve their work or working relationships or to solve problems and identify new pursuits.

Example of an Activity-Based Icebreaker

For example, a Human Resources department wanted to find out why they took 3-4 months to replace an employee who resigned. They found this performance unacceptable and it did not meet the needs of their organization.

The icebreaker activity encompassed a full meeting session during which they flow charted their entire hiring process as it existed at that moment. Since this was an immediate activity that everyone in the department could participate in, it served as its own icebreaker.

A Second Example of an Action-Oriented Icebreaker

The second example of an activity icebreaker is a commonly used approach to debriefing work events or activities. For example, a team met to debrief an employee team-building event that is scheduled annually. Instead of using an artificial icebreaker, their icebreaker was a brainstorming session about the event.

They identified what went well about the event and what went poorly. Since every member of the team attended and had opinions, this exercise functioned as their icebreaker.

Variations on these three approaches exist, but these are basically your three main kinds of icebreakers.

Why Use an Icebreaker?

Icebreakers play a significant role in events in which communication and participant comfort level are important factors. They help you ensure that all attendees are equal participants and they fully engage participants when you want them to own the outcomes of the meeting or session.

They break down the barriers that exist inherently and by design in workplaces. These include the organization's hierarchy, organization chart, job titles, and various departmental entities. Following are the reasons why you will want to consider using an icebreaker.

  • When participants know each other and you want to warm up and get the discussion flowing comfortably, an icebreaker is in order.
  • When participants know each other and work in different areas or departments, an icebreaker will break the ice that can occur between these silos.
  • When participants know each other but have different job titles and levels within your organization’s chain of command, an icebreaker can break down the barriers that might inhibit honest, comfortable communication.
  • When participants are strangers, an icebreaker is a comfortable, simple way to make introductions, help people start communicating and sharing thoughts, and generally, warm up the room.
  • When participants don’t know each other but share a mission, an interest or an idea and have a lot in common, an icebreaker warms up the group prior to more serious discussion of the topic. You can use an icebreaker topic that allows the group to enter into the topic discussion but not the more weighty issues at hand. 
  • When participants are diverse: various ages, ethnic groups, profit, and nonprofit organizations, job titles within their organizations, and have unknown areas of commonality and shared interests, an icebreaker is essential to get people talking, generate laughter and start with an initial level of warmth within the room.