About Services Justice News + Notes Schedule a Call Login

The Dreaded Icebreaker

I’m currently designing several trainings centered on emotional intelligence, empathy, and managing people. My biggest challenge is that most trainings are time-constrained - for instance, I just finished an outline for a 90-minute training to cover emotional intelligence, empathy, and active listening in the workplace.

90 minutes! with 4 activities!

That does not leave a lot of time for people to interact with each other, or with me as the instructor. Yet no one wants an instructor who robotically drones on, trying to fill as many facts and ideas as possible into a specific time, expecting you to either take notes at her pace or just remember everything she says - and only says once.

Trainings are meetings

The thing is, trainings are meetings. You bring a group of people into a room, and you expect them to leave either having learned something or made a decision about something. Everyone’s time is limited, especially today with so many distractions vying for our limited attention spans. Then you go back to work, you have a full to-do list, and you are also required to be present in meetings during which you cannot accomplish anything on your list!

Make your meetings productive - Start with an icebreaker

The icebreaker does not have to be a get-to-know-each-other activity. The purpose of an ice breaker is to ensure everyone is fully present in the room. The activities can range from loud to silent; they can focus on getting to know other participants, or, they can get people’s minds focused on the problem they were brought together to solve. Icebreakers can be quick or can take quite some time.

I’ve read descriptions of activities that are really games designed to get people thinking about a problem from a different perspective, and that take 60-90 minutes. The entire meeting might be this type of game, in which case, the game may double as your icebreaker or you may do a super short, 5 minute opening icebreaker before diving in.

Icebreaker list

You can easily google TONS of icebreakers, so actually, I am not going to give you a list here. However I will mention that a simple guided breathing exercise can be a really useful icebreaker for many business meetings. The idea is to focus everyone’s attention - first on their own breath, and then on to the subject of the meeting.

Getting people’s attention - quickly!

No, I don’t think you should start business meetings by flicking the light switch like your fourth-grade teacher used to in order to get silence. Nor do I advocate raising your voice to get started (well, sometimes it seems necessary with a really large group - but don’t make it a habit). More and more companies are starting meetings with moments of silence, which are understood to be moments in which to reflect and focus, including Eileen Fisher and Google. Many other companies use mindfulness programs in other ways, including Aetna, Goldman Sachs, SAP, Target, General Mills, Ikea, and JP Morgan. Many business leaders now recognize that meditation is a healthy and effective way to boost presence and productivity.

One business consultant starts all her meetings not with silence, but with check-ins, a way to take stock of how everyone is doing and what they might be experiencing, internally, at the start of a meeting.

Remember the goal

The goal of any kind of icebreaker is simply to give people an opportunity to leave behind whatever they were just doing and focus on where they are. Depending on the meeting, different icebreakers will be more appropriate. Sometimes the get-to-know-others activity is perfect. Sometimes you want something silly to open up people’s creative minds. Sometimes you want something that focuses on gratitude so you can get people in a more collaborative mindset.

In short, the goal of your icebreaker should be the same as - or explicitly support - the goal of your meeting.

If you’re uncertain about how to go about picking the right icebreaker or want more advice about how to choose the best one, we can help.


50% Complete

Get emails

If you're interested in what we're selling, why not learn more about who we are and why we do what we do? Sign up for emails today.