What Is an Icebreaker?

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 designed 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.

Reasons to 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. These activities break down the barriers that exist in a workplace through its hierarchy, organization chart, job titles, and various departmental entities.

Icebreakers are, of course, helpful when participants don't know each other. But the can also work very well for warming up the room even for employees who are already familiar with each other. An icebreaker can get people talking, generate laughter, and start with an initial level of comfort among participants, especially if they work in different departments or at different levels in the organization, or if the group is diverse.

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.

Icebreakers When Participants Don't Know Each Other

When participants don’t know each other, an icebreaker will help them introduce themselves to the other participants. It's the most effective tool to begin to engage attendees and encourage their participation in a meeting, 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 and make people more comfortable engaging in the meeting.

In a mid-sized manufacturing company, for example, 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.

Types of Icebreakers

There are all sorts of icebreakers you can use for these purposes, but they generally fall under three main categories.

Icebreakers for Conversations

The first type of icebreaker is just for fun. When participants know each other, the laughter and conversation generated by the icebreaker will warm up the group. When participants are strangers, they learn something about each other and feel more ready to engage in conversation.

When these initial conversations happen, it helps ensure that participants enjoy and find value in the session. Here are several examples of fun, conversation-starting icebreakers:

Icebreakers As a Segue Into 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. For example, to introduce a session on team building, you might ask the group to identify the characteristics of their best team experience.

Here are additional formats that you can use for segue 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

Consider a Human Resources department that wanted to find out why they took three or four 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.

You can also use an icebreaker when you want to evaluate a recent company event.

Another Action-Oriented Icebreaker

Let's say a team met to debrief an annual employee team-building event. Instead of using a random 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 the main approaches you can take with icebreakers.

The Bottom Line

There's no better way to start a meeting, training class, or team building session than using an icebreaker to warm up the conversation among your participants. No matter how well your participants know each other, icebreakers can help you lead more effective meetings. Icebreakers are subject only to your imagination—the ideas here are just a starting point for you to come up with your own.

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