So you are planning your next training session and you are thinking about putting in a great ice breaker, but how do you know it will work? Have you ever been in a training session as an audience member and seen an icebreaker go horribly wrong? I think many people could say that it has happened at least once or twice where the perfectly planned, well intentioned icebreaker might have gone a different direction than expected and awkward moments might have lingered in the workshop. Ice breakers are a definite go-to activity for all trainers out there running workshops but designed and executed poorly can set a very bad tone for a session, so it is critically important that they are executed well. 

In this blog article we want to discuss what makes a great one and how you can make sure that yours, whatever you choice to do will go smoothly. So let’s start out with the fundamental premise and purpose of why we do an icebreaker in a training session. Based on our personal experience and research we have found that most trainers would agree that ice breakers are done for the following reasons, 

  1. To break the ice between audience members so that they get to know each other
  2. Create a level of comfort and readiness to learn and a positivity around the learning environment
  3. Slowly subtly introduce the topic of the session

Where we often see icebreakers going wrong is when they don’t meet those three criteria, essentially-creating comfort towards other learners and leading smoothly into the topic for the session. If an icebreaker doesn’t meet either of those criteria people can be left, feeling awkward or wondering ‘Why did we just do that?” Neither of which are a good outcome. 

So how do we craft a great ice breaker with the above in mind? Well let’s first of all look at what not to do. One of the most common ice breakers used is something along the lines of “Stand up and tell the class something interesting about yourself and tell us why you have come along to the course.” 

Now I am sure most readers of this blog would have heard this or something similar to this over their time of attending training sessions, but let’s unpack it, does it meet the criteria of creating comfort and a positive learning environment? Many would say no. Many times people wonder- “What is something interesting about myself I would feel comfortable telling complete strangers?” “How do I tell the room that I am only here because I have to be, without sounding rude.” The latter one is partially a joke, however we have all heard a version of, “I am here because my boss made me.” 

It is fascinating that this icebreaker is still so heavily used yet we all know how ineffective it can be. There are icebreakers on the other end of the spectrum that can end up with people stepping in and out of ropes, using toilet paper in various ways and even the old ‘Two Truths and One Lie’ game. All of these again, we need to evaluate against the criteria of-1. Will it lead to greater comfort with the other audience members in the session? 2. Will it create a positive learning environment and perspective towards the topic? These types of activities may not meet the criteria just discussed and may also drain large amounts of teaching time from a session. These activities, whilst not bad, may fall better into the category of ‘energizers’ and learning through games or even experiential learning, through which the trainer can unpack key learnings from the activities. They can also be used after lunch to build energy and engagement back into the group and get people moving around the room. There are many books out there on energizer activities that are disguised as ‘ice breakers’. Both are great, but need to be used at the right time. 

So maybe it’s time to rethink our icebreakers? Here are some simple but very powerful ‘getting to know you activities’ that work exceptionally well for creating a great learning environment as well as subtly introducing a topic: 

Here are some example session topics and some example pair work questions that you can use within the first 5-10 mins of a session. 

Leadership:

Go and meet another learner, find out what they do for work and who was a leader inspired them at a point in their career or in life and why?

Report back to the group on what your partner shared.

Teaching the Training and Assessment Qualification (TAE):

Go and meet another learner, find out what they do for work and what was their best learning experience in life was and why it was a great learning experience?

Report back to the group on what your partner shared.

Teaching hospitality:

Go and meet another learner, find out what was the best restaurant that they have ever been to, and what made it amazing?

Report back to the group on what your partner shared.

Teaching Teachers/Leaders on a professional development day:

Go and meet someone and find out what they teach/manage and what inspired them to get into that role?

Report back to the group on what your partner shared.

Each of these questions although so simple, can do wonders for creating a sense of immediate rapport, positivity around the topic of the session, but most of all a sense of community and a ‘readiness to collaborate’. It is a far cry from awkwardness and embarrassment that can occur when an ice breaker has broken the ice too much so to speak. There are many variations that you can do on the above questions to get people thinking. However you want to pick questions that are objective, provoke comfortable sharing but a sense of wonder and inspiration at the same time and as always, avoid questions that might create conflict amongst the group. 

We hope that this brief article might have got you thinking a little differently about what might constitute an ‘Icebreaker’ vs an ‘Energizer Activity’. Both are great at the right times and with the right intent. A great icebreaker can make or break a session because as we all know, it’s very hard to remake a first impression. 

If you have any questions or would like to find out more about our training and facilitation courses connect with us @

Marc Miles

info@spectraining.edu.au

Marc Miles