It’s 8 a.m. You’ve just walked into a room full of 100 people, but your brain is still back on that 5 a.m. flight you took to get here. All you can think about is finding the coffee and perhaps ensuring that your seat for the day is located near a power outlet. But of course, you’ve barely deposited your belongings in a chair before someone is greeting you verbosely and introducing what icebreaker you’re about to participate in with your colleagues. Icebreaker? Oh no. The room choruses and synchronized groan. Everyone hates icebreakers.
Whether you’re in a five-person department meeting or a multi-day conference with hundreds, it seems that the activity designed to bring participants together and ease tension is the very activity that tends to drive most people’s anxiety or boredom levels through the roof. What is it about icebreakers that is so universally painful?
1. They don’t work
While icebreakers are supposed to get people talking and warm up the room, they often are stale and frigid. Either everyone has done them before and knows exactly where they are going, or they don’t actually provide people with the opportunity to get to know each other.
“Find a partner and find 3 things in common.”
You: Um, we both work in healthcare?
Them: Yeah good. Um, do you like watching TV?
You: Yep. Cool, that’s another one.
When participants know what’s coming, they’re not excited about the activity and they don’t put effort into it. When your icebreaker allows people to give “canned” answers, they aren’t actually opening up. Instead they regurgitate answers they have given dozens of times. Icebreakers that lack structure and ask participants to just “share” about themselves often just lead to more awkwardness.
2. They’re pointless
People value their time. And they’ll respect you more when they believe you value their time as well. If an icebreaker is executed just for the sake of having an icebreaker at your meeting, it feels pointless and like a waste of time. Ideally an icebreaker will connect back to your meeting purpose and be a seamless introduction to and segue into your meeting content. Try something like this:
“Write down an example of a time someone stood up for you when they didn’t have to. What are the top three emotions you experienced in that situation? Find a partner or group of three and take turns sharing your story.”
For an icebreaker like this, having participants start by writing down their answers allows people time to think and come up with an answer they feel comfortable sharing with a large group. When participants write their response first they’re more likely to take their time to come up with a good example and be able to articulate more clearly when asked to share it out loud. When the icebreaker is done, you can tie it into the rest of the event like this:
“Thank you everyone for sharing your stories and how those experiences made you feel. Just as there are been times in our lives where we’ve need others to advocate for us, as health care professionals, we often need to advocate for our patients.”
An icebreaker that segues directly into content for the day makes participants feel that they’ve completed it for a reason. Now when they move forward and discuss a topic like patient advocacy, participants have a personal experience to keep coming back to, as well as stories of their colleagues and the relationship they’ve built with their partners by sharing a meaningful story.
3. People don’t participate
Be honest. How many times have you been asked to participate in an icebreaker, but instead you and your partner sort of “fudge” the process? Perhaps you chit-chat idly instead of actually doing the activity. Perhaps you sneak off to the bathroom to avoid the process entirely.
When working with groups of adults, people often feel they don’t “have” to do anything they don’t want to. Therefore, your icebreaker needs participant buy-in. You can cultivate this in a number of ways. A lesser known icebreaker might get more buy-in as people will be curious to see where it’s going. With the right crowd, a fun or silly icebreaker has a better chance of increasing participation simply because people actually want to do what you’re asking them. An icebreaker where participants can see the value is more likely to succeed because people don’t feel it’s a waste of their time.
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