Breaking the Ice 

A close up of snow covered ice with cracks in it. Icebreaker

Icebreaker – how to do it right, and wrong!

Earlier this week, the top 10 jokes from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland were revealed and we’re going to unashamedly use one of them to introduce this week’s discussion topic… 

“I thought I’d start off with a joke about the Titanic – just to break the ice” (Masai Graham) 

In development sessions, Icebreakers tend to have an almost ‘polarising’ (you’re welcome) effect on participants. Some can be extremely effective and help to set the tone of the session and calm the fears of the participants. Other times they can be inappropriate, irrelevant, toe-curlingly uncomfortable or tumbleweed inducing, leading to a ‘car crash’ start to the session. Every development consultant’s nightmare! 

So why are icebreakers used so universally in development sessions? 

  • Create a Positive Atmosphere: Icebreakers reduce initial barriers and tension among participants who might be unfamiliar with each other, helping them to feel more relaxed and encouraging them to engage in discussions and activities throughout the session. 
  • Build Relationships: Icebreakers encourage participants to interact with one another, helping to develop connections and common interests. This is particularly important when participants come from diverse backgrounds or when team collaboration is required. 
  • Energise the Group: Sometimes, development sessions are held at times when participants might be feeling tired or de-motivated. Icebreakers can inject energy and enthusiasm into the group, setting a positive tone for the rest of the session. 
  • Reduce Anxiety: Many participants may feel anxious or apprehensive about a development session, especially if it involves new or complex information. Icebreakers help reduce this anxiety by providing a low-stakes, non-threatening activity to start with. 
  • Promote Creativity and Innovation: Icebreakers often involve creative and unconventional activities that stimulate participants’ thinking in new ways. This can set the stage for more innovative and open-minded discussions during the session. 
  • Boost Learning Retention: When participants are engaged and comfortable, they are more likely to retain the information presented during the session. Icebreakers create a positive learning environment that can enhance the overall development experience. 
  • Foster Inclusivity: Icebreakers can be designed to encourage inclusivity and celebrate diversity. Activities that share personal experiences or allow participants to express their unique perspectives can help create a sense of belonging for everyone involved. 

This all sounds great, doesn’t it? But there are instances when icebreakers can go spectacularly wrong, failing to set the scene in the intended way and leading to feelings of discomfort and embarrassment. 

  • Forced Participation: If an icebreaker feels forced or uncomfortable for participants, it can create resentment and resistance. Activities that require participants to share more than they are comfortable with or to perform in a way that doesn’t align with their personality can lead to negative experiences. 
  • Insensitive Content: Some icebreakers involve sharing personal information, for example, a question like “Share your most embarrassing moment” could lead to someone sharing something deeply personal that they later regret sharing. 
  • Lack of Relevance: Icebreakers that don’t connect well with the development content or its goals might seem frivolous or pointless to participants (in what session would it be relevant to ‘share your most embarrassing moment’?). This can lead to a disconnect between the icebreaker and the main development activities, undermining the purpose. 
  • Group Dynamics: Icebreakers can inadvertently highlight power dynamics within a group, making some participants uncomfortable if they feel singled out or put on the spot. 
  • Cultural Insensitivity: Icebreakers that are designed without considering cultural diversity can inadvertently offend participants from different backgrounds. An activity that relies on specific cultural references or norms might alienate participants who aren’t familiar with them. 
  • Overused Activities: If participants have encountered the same icebreaker in multiple development sessions, it can lead to boredom and a lack of engagement. 

Carefully plan and choose icebreakers that are appropriate for the development context as well as the participants. Also, as with all activities, the briefing is vital (why, how, how long, expected outcomes). The debrief is equally important (otherwise what’s the point?) and should be, as the name suggests, brief – participants will want to get on with the advertised subject matter before it gets to lunchtime!  

When we deliver development sessions at ICC, we will often omit an icebreaker in favour of asking participants to chew on the first activity of the session. In our experience, participants quickly find their stride and engage with the development content, which is where the real transformation begins. If you’re interested in finding out more about our approach, click here.

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