Why I Start My Meetings With an Icebreaker

Who here is the recipient of a thousand heavy sighs and epic eye rolls when you announce you’re going to start your meeting with an ice breaker?

I used to be one of those eye rollers. I would cringe and start to panic the moment any facilitator announced this. I was so nervous about sharing whatever personal story or snippet of information they wanted me to share that I wouldn’t be able concentrate on the meeting at hand.

I’ve come a long way since those days and have grown to be so comfortable with icebreakers I’m now a huge advocate for them. There isn’t a meeting I don’t kick off without one.

Why do I subject people to this kind of… ‘torture’ as a team mate has fondly referred to icebreakers?

Icebreakers are a great way to change the mood of the room

You don’t know what type of day your colleagues have had. They may have come straight from another meeting that’s playing on their mind. They may be stressed, exhausted, or just not feeling it. An icebreaker gives participants a few minutes to forget about everything else, have a laugh (hopefully) and get to know who is in the room with them.

Icebreakers are great for team building

A quick 5-minute icebreaker at the start of a meeting can go a long way in building relationships and strengthening a team. They give team members a chance to get to know each other a little more, find common ground and build empathy and understanding between each other.

Icebreakers give people permission to have fun at work

While we’re all adulting and being serious, icebreakers can act as a reminder that it’s okay to have fun at work. We spend so much of our day here it’s important to have some downtime and a bit of fun.

Ice breakers help set the scene for the meeting

Use icebreakers to help plant a seed or encourage behaviours you want to see in the coming meeting. If you want your team to be open and honest in a meeting, and share freely without judgement, an icebreaker can be used to set this scene and get people to open up.


My top five go-to icebreakers

Top tip: never lead your team through an icebreaker you wouldn’t be comfortable participating in yourself.

1. Which side are you on?

Great for: Finding common ground, energizing the room

Which Side Are You On is a perfect introduction to icebreakers. You’re not asking too much of participants; they don’t have to share their life story; it gets everyone moving around; and there really is no preparation needed.

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How to play

Split the room in two by drawing an imaginary line or using a physical marker in the room (e.g. a carpet line).

Let participants know you are going to call out a series of choices and they are to move to either side of the room based on their preference. If they like both or are undecided they can move to the middle of the room.

Examples:

  • Coffee or tea?
  • Early bird or night owl?
  • Cat person or dog person?
  • Left-handed or right-handed?
  • City or country?
  • Winter or summer?
  • Sweet or savory?
  • It’s okay to put pineapple on pizza? It’s not okay to put pineapple on pizza?

Come up with specific choices relevant to your team or location. For example, coming from Melbourne, calling out AFL teams is a great way to get a reaction.

2. 10 things in common

Great for: New teams or a group of people coming together from different areas of the business

I love this icebreaker, it gets people to open up quickly, sharing life experiences and discussing commonalities.

How to play

If you have a large group, break the room into smaller groups of 6–7 participants.

Set a timer - I like to put the pressure on and give people 5 minutes.

Ask teams to list 10 things they have in common. I like to have the group write their list on a whiteboard or large sheet of butcher’s paper.

Set the rules. E.g. body parts, items of clothing and the fact everyone works at SEEK are always off the table.

3. Visual phone

Great for: A laugh, getting to know one another

This icebreaker is great for breaking down barriers, to get people thinking about communication styles and to have a bit of a laugh.

How to play

This works best with up to 10 participants, if you have a larger group you might want to split them in two to move through the activity faster.

Give each person post-its and a marker.

Ask everyone to write something about themselves on one post-it and keep it secret. Let them know they can only use one post-it for this, you want a short statement, not a paragraph.

Ask everyone to place a blank post-it on top of their statement and have participants pass their statements to the person on their right.

Ask participants to read the statement and draw a representation of it on the blank post-it. Once they’ve finished the drawing, place another blank post-it on top and again pass the post-its to the person on their right.

Lastly, have everyone write a sentence for the picture on the blank post-it. Participants should now have three post-its, the original statement, the drawing, and the new statement on top.

Take turns to read the new statement, show the drawing and compare these to the original statement. You’ll be surprised at how creative people can be, and how different the final statement is from the original.

4. Two truths and a lie

Great for: Team building, a laugh

How to play

Always a goodie, have participants share two truths and one lie about themselves. The rest of the group needs to guess which one is a lie.

If you have people in the group who are really struggling and look uncomfortable, I usually let them know they can share two foods they like and one they don’t like.

5. Big hitter moments

Great for: A retro warm-up

If you work in an agile world, this is a great warm-up to see how much attention people are really paying to each other’s updates in daily stand-ups.

How to play

Give all participants two index cards. Have them write their name on the top of one of the cards and place it in the middle of the table.

On the other index card, they are to write their big hitter moment for the sprint (or any period you decide on). Participants are to keep this card to themselves.

Now, have each person pick up an index card from the middle of the table (make sure they don’t pick up their own) and ask them to write what they think that person’s big hitter moment was.

Take turns to read out the name of the person on the card and the guess at the big hitter moment. The named person then shares their actual big hitter moment.

This activity really highlights how much team members know about each other’s day-to-day work and what they are proud of.

Do you have a favourite icebreaker? I’d love for you to share it with me in the comments below.