Sometimes what you don’t say makes the biggest impression
According to Wikipedia, an icebreaker is:
“a facilitation exercise intended to help a group to begin the process of forming themselves into a team. Icebreakers are commonly presented as a game to ‘warm up’ the group by helping the members to get to know each other.”
As a facilitator I’ve also found these brief activities invaluable to help me become aware of my assumptions about the individuals in the room. It’s rare that I’m not enlightened, surprised or impressed by the ensuing conversations.
I take great care when choosing and introducing an icebreaker. Invariably someone in the session has had a bad experience with this kind of activity in the past. They may have been asked to do something that was truly distasteful, risky or threatening, particularly if there were “bosses” present. They may have been the only introvert in a room of extroverts, surrounded by “over-sharing” that is overwhelming. Or they may just have been forced to speak up in a session that they’d planned to sleep through!
I always try to introduce the icebreaker with a disclaimer: “You can say as much or as little as you like, you can be honest or you can make something up. The purpose of this activity is to get to know each other by giving everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard. And we’re asking you to speak with confidence and expertise on a subject you’re uniquely qualified to address — yourself!”
One of the most effective exercises I’ve employed involves asking people to introduce themselves and then complete a sentence, such as “One thing you don’t know about me is…” or “One thing that is unique about me compared to the rest of the people in this group is …” Three memorable responses to these questions stand out after years of icebreakers.
The first involved a small, middle-aged, unassuming woman who worked as a lower-level clerk in a large bureaucratic organization. She advised the group that one thing they didn’t know about her was that she had been a world-class competitive gymnast in her youth, prior to a career-ending injury. Her co-workers looked at her differently after that; as one said, “Who knew!”