Create your own icebreakers or priming activities in just two steps.
Approximate reading time: approximately 12 minutes; 2455 words.
Effective icebreakers prime participants for the work in the meeting or workshop you’ll facilitate. That’s why I tend to call them primers. They should advance the outcomes of the event; equitably engage participants; and respect the culture(s) of those present, the organization, and/or the conference. Participants should experience the activity as purposeful and relevant, not as a facilitator’s random choice to fill the icebreaker slot in an outline.
Examples of icebreakers and primers are abundant, but you also can easily create your own. This guide illustrates how easy it is to mix and match content and form to DIY a priming activity (icebreaker) for your meetings or workshops. Your task is simple: determine conversation catalysts, select a format, and merge them to create your priming activity.
Step One: Determine Conversation Catalysts
As I’ve noted previously, the key strategic question to determine your choice of an icebreaker, community-builder or primer is simple:
Given the work to be done in the meeting or workshop, the people who will do it, and the time available, what content conversations and interpersonal connections need priming and how might that be done?
For our purposes, let’s assume you want to strengthen connections among participants to make it easier for them to leverage the diverse experiences and individual strengths among those present*. Your debrief of any activity should explore what they learned about each other and how it might inform their efforts during the meeting or workshop.
To begin, brainstorm potential conversation catalysts—topics, themes, questions—that will advance the stated purpose. For my example*, here are two categories of information to brainstorm:
What you generally want to know about others if you were in a meeting or workshop with them; and
What information might give you more insight into who they are as people and professionals, their experiences, the perspectives they possess, the knowledge they can contribute, and what you might not initially infer about them.
I can turn my brainstormed responses into questions to use as catalysts for meaningful conversation such as:
When an idea you want to advance meets resistance, how do you typically respond?
Tell me about the last time you felt really inspired.
What is the most important commitment for partners or collaborators to make to each other? Why this one?
What's a misperception people might have of you?
What most influences the level of trust you have in others?
What do you most value in a collaborator or colleague and why?
What is usually required for you to change your mind about something?
What is a principle, model, or framework that informs your work and helps you succeed?
In what situations or with what types of people do you most feel you have something to contribute?
What's one thing you really wish our ___ (company, org, neighborhood) would try to make happen?
It’s fine to draw content from the list you generate alone, but whenever possible I try to engage participants in the effort. Ideally I involve them in similar brainstorming, but if that is not possible, I have them review my brainstormed list and select the questions and topics they most want to explore.
This approach has two key benefits:
What gets discussed likely will have more meaning and relevance for participants.
They have more ownership for the subsequent activity and this may lead to more thoughtful responses, further increasing the activity’s value.
To finish the design of your icebreaker or primer, you now selectively pair content from the brainstormed list with a format of your choice. When paired with a different format, the same content creates a different activity and learning experience when paired with a different format.
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Step Two: Select A Format
Step One clarified what participants will discuss, the content of the activity. Step Two addresses how those conversations will occur, the format for the primer or icebreaker. Be sure to select a format that can work with your gathering’s number of participants, the time available, and the room size and set or online platform capabilities.
You may already have a variety of formats you’ve facilitated or experienced. Here are seven that are easily adaptable and don’t require a lot facilitation experience to successfully implement.
The basics: Participants join together in pairs for a timed conversation in which they may ask each other any of the content questions/prompts from the list you provide. The list offers a bit of structure to accelerate meaningful conversations. More introverted participants often find it particularly helpful.
Now select one of these options:
Allot a longer time (10-15 minutes) for multiple questions in one pairing. I sometimes then have participants briefly introduce their partner to the group; or,
Allow a short time for a pairing (4-5 minutes), but do multiple rounds of different pairings so people have quick conversations with several participants.
Experiment with how you can use the available physical space to support these pairings. Having people a bit closer together, perhaps even in a “knee to knee” format, can create a more intimate conversational feel than people spread out more expansively.
Asked and Answered
This format may be particularly useful with an ongoing group that convenes regularly such as a board, committee, or staff team. You can repeat it a few times before every person has answered every question involved.
The format is simple. From the list of possible conversation catalysts, each person gets to ask one question of anyone else in the group. The asker must be willing to answer the same question if someone poses it to them. Questions are asked and answered until everyone has taken a turn.
An upside of this activity is that it allows individual autonomy and choice. A potential downside is that during any individual session some people might never get asked a question. To avoid that, modify your instructions to state that “Everyone must be asked one question before anyone is asked a second.”
As people are asked a question, I usually note their names on a flipchart or virtual whiteboard so people see who is now ineligible.
The basics: Have your group identify the 6-8 things they’d most like to learn about each other (or select that many from a longer list of possibilities that you provide). Then select one of the following four options to generate individual snapshots or profiles containing this information:
Use an online survey to gather participants’ responses for the content areas identified. Compile them into individual snapshots (profiles) and create a PDF with individual pages for each person. Distribute it prior to the session for people to review.
During a session, participants could answer the chosen questions or topics in writing on a sheet of flipchart paper. Post completed sheets on a wall for everyone to read in a Gallery Walk format. Or have them note responses on a letter- or legal-sized sheet and do a “Read and Pass” to rotate responses among everyone in the group.
As pre-work, people could note their responses to the topics selected and then verbally share their answers during the session. This works best with a small group and for a longer session since these intros likely would take some time (probably at least five minutes per person). But the pre-work approach does save a bit of time—and honors the preferences of more reflective or introverted participants—as people come prepared to share their snapshot.
Instead of live intros, participants could answer the questions in short video or audio profiles that they record on their own time and then post to a common site. All group members are tasked with reviewing the profiles prior to the session.
Regardless of which option you select, make sure to adequately debrief the information revealed:
Ask the group to identify common themes and unique insights they discerned from the profiles.
Explore how participants’ experiences or perspectives (as well as ones not represented among them) might inform their work together.
Identify potential gaps in understanding or unconscious biases.
In my debrief, I also note that the information gathered in just one snapshot of many possible images that would form a more complete picture of each person present.
Find Someone Who
At some point in your life you likely were given a sheet with a list of statements and asked to find and get the signature of someone for whom each statement was true. I hope no trauma still lingers [sarcasm].
This simple format generates a nice energy and buzz as people mix freely amongs. It works best with a decent number of participants.
To emphasize connection quantity, task people with acquiring as many signatures as they can in a designated timeframe.
To emphasize connection quality, task them with obtaining a minimum number of signatures (I usually suggest 5-7) but also chat briefly with each person about the statement claimed.
Instead of roaming around and finding people individually, in this format participants connect and cluster with people who match the instruction you provide as the facilitator. These prompts can be drawn from your brainstormed conversation catalysts or more broadly drawn such as these I once experienced in a workshop activity led by Gail DiSabatino for the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA):
“Join with people having the same birth order position in their family and talk about how that family position affected you.”
“Partner with someone with whom you think you have little in common and discuss one of the defining moments in your professional career, one that deeply influenced how you think and approach your work.”
“Find someone with whom you think you have a lot in common. Discuss what led you to that perception and how accurate it is.”
“Join with 2-3 people who are of your generational cohort. Discuss accurate perceptions and inaccurate perceptions of your generation.”
It is possible, but a bit logistically cumbersome, to do this exercise virtually using breakout rooms. You have to use topics for which you can offer specific options and assign a breakout room to each option. For example, invite people to join the breakout room corresponding to their generational cohort for discussion. After each breakout round, move people back into the shared online space for the next cluster instruction.
Similar in spirit to Conversation Clusters, People Movers is the name I use for activities that move people in intentional ways to create a visual illustration of the similarities, differences, and range of experiences and perspectives that exist in a group. The three variations that follow simply move people and reveal this information in different ways.
For any People Mover variation, I typically first use content topics or statements drawn from the brainstormed list, but may then invite participants to offer a statement about something they would like to learn about the group, time permitting. A participant might say, “I’d like to see how many people here are new in their jobs.”
Be sure when using any activity involving movement that your physical space will work for anyone with slower or more limited mobility, as well as anyone in a scooter or wheelchair.
People Mover: Human Graph
For this People Mover format, turn the topics or questions previously brainstormed into statements for which participants indicate their level of agreement.
Label one wall in your meeting room Agree and the wall across from it Disagree. Have participants form a line down the center of the room between the two walls.
Explain that people should imagine a number line spanning between the Agree and Disagree signs. They currently are positioned at Neutral. After you read each statement, participants should move to the space on this imaginary number line that best reflects their level of agreement.
Example: if neutral they would remain in the center of the room. If they are 100% in agreement or disagreement, they’d stand flat against the appropriate wall. And everything in between.
The repeated movement in this exercise can boost energy. The graphing creates quick visuals of the range of experiences or perspectives among the group for any given statement. You can hold people in place and facilitate a brief discussion about the distribution of responses prior to reading a new statement.
For an online version, use a whiteboard with a horizontal line drawn between two endpoints labeled agree and disagree. Participants type their names (or insert their photo or avatar) in the appropriate position to reflect their level of agreement with any statements you read. Clear the board prior to reading the next statement.
People Mover: Move Forward If
I often use this People Mover as an opening activity to quickly illustrate the diversity of people present and to help people identify potential connections they want to make.
Participants form a circle. When you read a statement, they move forward if it applies to them. For example, “move forward if you typically find yourself to be in the minority of some sort when part of a group.”
Facilitated discussion can follow as desired. Have people return to their original spots before the next statement is read.
I hate for people to leave a meeting or workshop with unfinished business. Using Move Forward If near the end of a session helps avoid this. Here I let participants generate all the statements, ones related to questions for which they still seek answers or connections they’d like to pursue after the event concludes. A participant might say “I’d like to talk further with anyone who has experience managing non-responsive volunteers.”
People Mover: Four Corners
In this third People Mover variation (a popular one in school classrooms), you attach labels to each of the four corners of the room. People move to the appropriate corner after each statement. Use Four Corners when you want to make it easier for like-minded participants to converse with each other.
Labels can be as simply as Strong Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, or something more complex. Use the same labels for each statement or change them up to be more revealing for specific statements. To build on my verbal instructions, I always post both the statement and the corner labels on slides so they remain present once people begin moving.
You can use this format virtually by labeling different breakout rooms and having people move to the appropriate one for each statement.
Any icebreaker, primer, or community-building activity is some combination of content and format. While possible activities are readily available in books and online, knowing how to create and facilitate your own (or modify those you encounter or experience) is a good skill to develop.
Other posts to help strengthen your design and facilitation of icebreakers, primers, and other group activities:
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