Meetings & Conventions Breaking the Ice December
Breaking the Ice
10 ways to get your attendees to loosen up
By Sarah J.F. BraleyONCE YOU’VE
gathered your flock, don’t force
them to break the ice the way penguins do. These flightless birds
fearfully gather along icy cliffs, then push and shove one another
until a lone penguin plummets into the sea. If it isn’t gobbled up
by a killer whale, they all take the plunge.
Whether your attendees have come together at a cocktail party,
for a team-building retreat, to brainstorm or to hear a keynote
speaker, it’s your job to make them feel comfortable and convivial.
The icebreaker can, in fact, set the temperature for the entire
Once a warmup exercise is under way, even the most jaded in the
group tend to follow along, possibly because they don’t want to
seem uncooperative. But icebreakers work their best magic when they
have been tailored specifically for the group. “The higher the
level, the more sophisticated they are, the more you have to set up
the exercise,” says facilitator Kathleen Fenton. “Sometimes I use
humor to poke fun at some of the underlying fears people might
have, like the worry that the icebreaker will be too
Fenton, president of the Atlantic Rim Group in Alexandria, Va.,
won’t force anyone into an activity they don’t want to join, but
adds: “I’ve never had anyone say they weren’t going to participate.
Most of the time, once they’ve done it, they’re glad they did.”
The following exercises are designed to add a little spice to
your meeting’s ingredients and make participants more comfortable
with one another. You can choose the one you want to use depending
on how much time you have. If the group will be together all day or
for several days, opt for a more in-depth game, but if the meeting
is only an hour long, go with the five-minute drill.
Many icebreakers are a variation on this theme, a favorite of
facilitator Darin Ulmer. People pair up and find three things in
common they didn’t already know about each other. “It can’t be
anything they can see,” says The Woodlands, Texas-based Ulmer. This
rules out hair and eye color, clothing and the fact they have the
same boss. After that, ask them to join up with another pair and go
through the same process, but they must find things all four of
them have in common without using anything they learned in the
first round. The four then join up with another four and look for
things all eight share. If the group is sizeable and there’s lots
of time to mingle, Ulmer will go the next step and create groups of
“I also use this exercise to divide people into groups for
whatever comes next, so they already know each other a little bit
and know what they have in common,” he says.
For people who already know each other pretty well, Ulmer
changes this exercise a bit to play a variation on the “Six Degrees
of Kevin Bacon” game that involves connecting other actors to Kevin
Bacon by way of the movies they have starred in. In this case, with
groups split into eight or more (it works well with people sitting
at round tables), the participants find experiences they share in
increasing degrees of commonality. For example, Ulmer once had
people from a consulting firm who discovered they had all been to a
foreign country, the country was Mexico, they all went to a bar in
a border town, they all drank the same kind of beer, and so on.
“This table of eight ended up with 13 degrees of commonality in one
15-minute break,” says the facilitator.
Arts and Crafts
What better way to make new friends than to work together on an art
project? Warmups for Meeting Leaders (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer
& Co., San Francisco, $59.95), a book full of great icebreaker
ideas by Sue Bianchi, Jan Butler and David Richey, suggests using a
creative project to develop team spirit or positive interaction
between group members. Take basic materials like finger paints,
modeling clay or paper, glue and scissors or such building toys as
Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets or Legos, then set the
groups to a creative task with a time limit. The first to finish
wins a prize.
To the Point
Topping the list of favorite icebreakers for facilitator Fenton is
one that is simple, but effective.
“I use this one for training, strategic planning, almost
anything,” she says. In this opening exercise, people pair up, ask
each other’s names and job functions (not titles, but what they
actually do), and share an interesting fact the other wouldn’t
know. “I’ve had someone who was the state spelling champ in sixth
grade, another who had built his own plane and one who had made
local TV commercials for car dealers using big cats.”
Another Fenton activity breaks the room into small groups and
has them work on brainteasers. She hands out pieces of paper
listing 25 coded lines, like “4Q=G” (four quarts equal a gallon)
and challenges the groups to be the first to figure out all the
lines. A variation on this exercise, which demonstrates how teams
work, is for half the people to collaborate on decoding the list
while the rest puzzle it out alone. Invariably, according to
Fenton, the teams figure out all the lines first.
Hands Across the Room
Sometimes you want the activity to be short and sweet, but you want
all attendees to interact in some way. Consider another of Ulmer’s
tricks: the handshake chain.
“It’s really brief and it gets everyone out of their chairs,” he
says of the exercise that challenges each participant to shake
hands with everyone in the room. Once, with a group of 1,600 who
were meeting over several days, they did some problem-solving
overnight and figured out how to finish the task more efficiently.
The 1,600 got it down to about five minutes by forming two facing
parallel lines and even remembered to shake Ulmer’s hand (he was in
the room, after all).
Compliments All Around
Everybody likes to hear positive things about themselves, which is
at the basis of this exercise from Warmups for Meeting Leaders.
Start with a packet of four to six stick-on labels, a felt pen and
a blank piece of paper for each attendee. After discussing how it
feels to receive a compliment, each participant writes a comment on
each label by answering the question: “What is something positive I
would like my boss to say to me today?” Then have everyone get up
and stick the labels on each other’s backs, spreading the good
When all the comments have been pasted to backs around the room,
have everyone take the stickers they received and put them on their
piece of paper. Have them then read the labels out loud and, if
time permits, discuss how it felt to receive the positive
When it’s time for fun and you have a group of guests milling
around a room, play this celebrity-guessing game many facilitators
use. Have the names of celebrities or historical figures written on
stickers and put one on each person’s back (without letting them
see the name). Each person has to figure out whose name is on his
back by asking yes or no questions.
Quick And Easy
Sometimes, you want to get people around a table to become
comfortable quickly, and then move on to the business at hand. In
this case, ask a question they all have to answer, and go around
the table. The question can be timely: What’s the coolest thing
they did over the summer? What are their plans for the weekend? Or
it can be evergreen: What’s their favorite way to pamper
themselves? What’s the riskiest thing they have ever done? Use one
of these or make one up that fits the occasion.
Scavenger HuntWill It Work?
Another fun game from Warmups for Meeting Leaders is a personal
scavenger hunt. Each participant receives a list of attributes to
find in other attendees. The person who fills out the list first
(or most completely) gets a prize. Have the group query each other
to find someone with the same color eyes, someone who was born in
the same state, someone who has the same astrological sign, the
same favorite sport and so on. Again, use these suggestions and/or
make up some attributes that might contribute to the objectives of
Even the best efforts to warm up a group can leave some
participants out in the cold. Insiders offer these dos and don’ts.
DO MAKE SURE NAMETAGS ARE COMPLETE, so
attendees don’t have to ask “where are you from?” or “who are you
with?”DON’T HIRE A LOUD BAND for a cocktail or
social hour. You want people to mingle and chat without screaming
over the din.DON’T GET POLITICAL. And don’t use games that
can isolate any person.DO HAVE A FACILITATOR to serve as cheerleader
you’re getting a group that’s cold or not engaged, and you need
someone to drive the energy in the room.DO TIE THE ACTIVITY TO THE LEVEL OF
PARTICIPANTS. For instance, something overly intellectual
might alienate a blue-collar group. Consider the skills and
abilities involved in the exercise and make sure they’re
appropriate.DO BE AWARE THAT SOME EXERCISES CAN BACKFIRE.
“I don’t like the ones where people walk around with signs on their
backs,” says Kathleen Fenton of the Atlantic Rim Group. She worries
that someone who is shy might find these exercises offensive.
Facilitator Darin Ulmer noted an uncomfortable moment that occurred
during his Commonality exercise: When asking groups for items they
had in common, one group piped up, “We all fear our boss.” (He was
in the room.)
Icebreakers aren’t just for cold groups. Sure, they help
strangers get to know each other, but they can also help to:
Juice up a flagging group when fatigue is threatening to take
over.Build team spirit.Bring back some harmony when dissension threatens.Help people who’ve already met get better acquainted.
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