The Chilling Effect of Icebreakers

hand acting as icebreaker

Comedian Karen Morgan nailed it with this joke about icebreakers. What she says about an introvert’s reaction to icebreakers (and no doubt most extrovert’s as well) is true. My goal with this article is to focus on the dangers of icebreakers in a business meeting, what people actually need to hear from facilitators as meetings begin, and what you can do to give meeting participants what they need when a meeting begins.  


The Problems with Breaking the Ice 

Icebreakers are blunt instruments that can have the opposite effect they are meant to have.  

  • Often, icebreakers attempt to break ice that doesn’t exist. Groups that know each other and have worked together for a while don’t need to be warmed up and won’t respond well to attempts to impose comradery.  
  • When people seem reluctant to participate in your meeting because they don’t know the other people in the group, putting them on the spot with an icebreaker will not help. It will only make them feel uncomfortable.  
  • While setting a positive tone and loosening people up—the goal of icebreaker exercises—are both important goals, they will not be reached by forcing “fun” on the group. Positive energy is an organic reaction to a fruitful discussion.  

 What Every Participant Wants When the Meeting Begins 

Now let’s look at what meeting participants do want at the beginning of a meeting.   

  • Relevance: Meeting participants want to know what the meeting has to do with them. When they understand that, they will be willing to participate. 
  • Purpose: Participants want to know what the goal of the meeting is. Along with relevance, a sense of purpose helps participants know what their role is and when it’s achieved.  
  • Efficiency: Participants want to feel that their time will be well spent.   
  • Empathy: Meeting participants want to know that you, the facilitator, know what they’re feeling during the meeting. Are participants feeling anxious, confused, or frustrated? If so, the facilitator needs to acknowledge that and do what they can to make people feel more comfortable.  
  • Safety: Everyone wants to feel a sense of safety in the meeting. This will make your meeting more inclusive and easier for everyone to contribute honestly and directly. An icebreaker does not do this.  

If Not Icebreakers, What? 

  • Earn Trust: Earn the trust of the group by framing the meeting from their perspective. Framing communicates context, purpose, order, and takeaways for the meeting.  
  • Set the Appropriate Tone: Take responsibility for the tone of the meeting. Begin with appropriate enthusiasm and work to engage everyone. This will help make people feel comfortable with you before anything else happens. 
  • Establish the Goal. Assume that your success as a facilitator will be achieved through the conversation you initiate and manage. Let meeting participants know that their participation serves a practical goal.  

 If you feel that participants absolutely must introduce themselves, keep it short and simple. A name and title might be enough. Or name, title, and role in the project being discussed. Always make introductions feel easy and relevant. Be grateful. Self-introductions are often necessary and never comfortable.  

Beginning your meetings with these goals in mind will eliminate the need for an icebreaker and get the conversation going in a positive, comfortable way.  

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