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How to Develop an Ice Breaker

By Susan M. Heathfield

Tired of spending time searching for an ice breaker through books and online and then, spending even more time to redesign the ice breaker for your needs? It’s difficult to find the perfect ice breaker, that reinforces the topic of your training, to use with your group, in your setting.

You can easily develop an ice breaker that will warm up the conversation in your training class, reinforce the topic of the training session, and ensure that participants enjoy the training.

You can decide the type of ice breaker that will have your desired impact in your training session.

However, the more time you invest in ice breaker participation during the session, the more important a training reinforcing ice breaker becomes. Use these tips to develop your own ice breaker.

Tips About How to Develop an Ice Breaker

• Decide how much time, relative to the length of the training session, you have to invest in an ice breaker. Keep in mind that with adult learners, the facilitator should talk and present 60-70% of the time. Thus, your time for trainee participation, including the ice breaker, is 30-40% of the training time.
• Figure out the characteristics, interests, and preferences of the participants for whom you want to develop the ice breaker. Different groups have varied preferences.
• Determine the goal of your ice breaker. Is the purpose of the ice breaker to warm up the group and provide the opportunity for participants to meet each other? Is the goal to bridge the group into the topic of the training session? Is the goal of the ice breaker to allow participants to demonstrate what they know or have experienced on a particular topic?

Or, is the goal to let the attendees participate in an activity that will demonstrate insights about the participants’ functioning together? The ice breaker can combine any of these goals. Just match the goals to the needs and preferences of your participants.

Movement in the Ice Breaker

• Decide if your group will appreciate warming up by talking with each other or if the group is action oriented in which case, they will appreciate movement. In a multiple day session, you might want to do both. One way to initiate early movement is to assign seating by asking participants to find the table partners who drew the same object out of a bag.

For this exercise, I have used candy bars, numbers on the bottom of plates or chairs, and fruit. (Everyone with an apple sits together, as an example.) Use your imagination and your knowledge of your group.

Another easy ice breaker is speed networking. Number the participants off in twos and tell them they have two minutes to tell their partner something important about themselves. At the end of two minutes, one of the partners moves to the next partner. If you keep time carefully, this activity may enable all participants to talk with each other. (Alternatively, you can give them two or three questions to answer such as where they went on their most recent vacation.)

Training Reinforcement and Discussion Ice Breaker

• Determine a concept relative to the training topic that is engaging, worthy of reinforcement, potentially expandable, and likely to spark discussion. As an example, for the ice breaker in a team success training session, I asked participants to describe their worst team experience and give three reasons why the described team was a bad experience. In another session, for the ice breaker, I asked the participants to describe their best team experience with examples of why they rated this experience their best.

In customer service training, the ice breaker question could be: describe your worst customer service experience and describe the training you’d offer the service provider if you had the opportunity. In a management development session, ask participants to share with each other the characteristics of the best managers they have known. In a leadership seminar, participants can describe why they followed their most influential leader.

When participants know each other and work together, discussion questions on the theme of the training work well. But, even if you have used a quick movement ice breaker, you may want to follow it with a discussion question ice breaker that pulls them into the topic of the seminar.

Action-Oriented Ice Breaker

• Depending on the time available, some groups enjoy competition. Others enjoy building or making something. Working with a police group, I had them build simple paper airplanes to see who could fly their plane furthest from the starting line in three tries. With an engineering group, I prepared bags of fun materials and challenged them to build spaceships.

These activities are followed by small group debriefs that identify what the participants learned about themselves and others by participating in the activity. The police talked about competition and cheating. The engineers talked about how well the team had worked together to plan and execute the project. And, everyone photographed the fun.

Ready to get started developing your own ice breaker? These ideas should help you move out of the starting gate. You’ll never look back, I guarantee. You’ll see how effective a custom-designed, tailored-to-the-group ice breaker can be with your participants.