Icebreaker Insights: Breaking the ice without breaking the connection09 June, 2018
The bitter truth about ice- breakers!
Anyone who has ever been to a training event will have experienced the icebreaker; that initial warm up activity designed to create a distinctive buzz, get us all energised and interacting, as well as focused on the topic we are there to learn.
Icebreakers often get bad press and warm up activities invariably fall short of the mark when it comes breaking the silence and transforming the room into a productive hub of active participation and collaboration, but why is this?
A colleague of mine recently admitted they always arrived late to training events purposely to avoid the icebreaker, after experiencing the indignity of being made to stand up in a professional forum and share with a room full of strangers’ insight into what farm animal they would choose to be and why.
Within this example lies the answer. Ill-chosen and irrelevant icebreakers that stand in isolation leave people cold and undermines the very essence of the purpose of the icebreaker; negatively affecting group dynamics, levels of enthusiasm and engagement, the potential for learning and enjoyment of the event.
Understanding the purpose of an icebreaker – a crystallised view
The inclusion of an icebreaker at the start of any training event serves three main purpose:
1. Icebreakers are intended to enable a diverse group of participants to become better acquainted. The aim being to ensure no one is left out and that everyone in the group feels comfortable in freely sharing information and ideas. This paves the way for active participation and more effective learning and development throughout the training event.
Icebreakers play a central part in creating the right learning environment and directing learning behaviour. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation and hierarchy of needs, helps illustrate this in practice. Maslow’s theory (represented by a 5-tier pyramid) explores the physical and psychological factors which act as pre-conditions for learning. To effectively learn and achieve our potential, certain needs must be satisfied before others come into play.
The very basic needs (at the bottom of the pyramid) are associated with survival, i.e. having sufficient food, water, shelter etc (as an aside this provides the reason to offer participants refreshments during training events). In addition, we need to feel secure and personally safe within our environment.
The next level of need is that of social connection, the necessity to build interpersonal relationships, become affiliated with a group, experience trust and gain acceptance. This underpins the next and fourth need of self-esteem; arising through freedom of expression, the dignity and respect we receive from others. Only then are we in a position to accomplish what we want to achieve and learn, which Maslow describes at the top of his pyramid as a state of self-actualisation.
Icebreakers therefore serve to strengthen and reinforce the development of social connection and raise self-esteem; thus, satisfying two pre-conditions for learning. If these needs are met, participants will be more motivated to engage with the subject matter and be open to learning with and alongside others in a positive way; creating the right environment for active participation and meaningful personal development.
2. Icebreakers function to warm-up the brain and get participants in the right frame of mind. The brain has 2 halves, the left side is analytical in its function and the right side creative. For participants to process information and generate ideas, both halves of the brain need to be ‘switched on’. Icebreakers help activate and engage both sides of the brain simultaneously, optimising learning, overall development and performance.
3. For the facilitator an icebreaker provides an opportunity to become more familiar with participants. It presents a chance to gain valuable information in relation to participants previous experience, levels of knowledge, interest in the subject, and expectations of the event; allowing adjustments to content in order to meet and satisfy specific learning needs.
Icebreakers aren’t as challenging as you may think. There is a lot of value in employing icebreakers and abandoning their use would be detrimental to the development of the group dynamics and the learning that subsequently occurs. Activities within training sessions should always be enjoyable; learning is certainly more effective when there’s fun and laughter. The key message here is that there is a fine line between fun and frivolous. Frivolous is where value and meaning become lost and motivation declines.
Developing or selecting an appropriate icebreaker may seem challenging, there is also a tendency to erroneously believe that icebreakers should be blistering hot high-octane super charged events packed with whistles and bells. From experience some of the simplest activities are the best.
Books and guides on training and facilitation often provide ideas for icebreakers and warm-up activities. In addition, the internet full of useful and practical resources that include quizzes, puzzles, games, treasure hunts, jigsaws, anagrams, pictograms, art and crafts that can be successfully utilised.
The key is to success is to ensure that the icebreaker activity is well thought-out and functions to add value. It should break down social barriers, generate engagement, build cohesion and enhance the learning experience.
Ensure your warm-up activities don’t get a frosty reception
If you are facilitating a training event, running and workshop or delivering a seminar. Here’s some key pointers and factors to consider. These will help you effectively plan and execute an icebreaker session that is not only enjoyable and worthwhile, but establishes the right conditions for interaction, learning and development.
Choose or design an icebreaker activity which introduces a small challenge and gets everyone talking: Remember the majority of your participants will be strangers to you and each other. Interaction is key; initial activities should encourage socialisation, collaboration and help participants recognise what they have in common. Activities with an element of challenge help kick start the brain in preparation for processing information and generating creative ideas as well as encouraging active (rather than passive) learning.
Ensure your icebreaker has a clear connection to the theme of the event or subject matter: Consider how the icebreaker activity links with the training objectives and serves to reinforce the subject matter. Think how the activity will contribute to building a positive climate for learning and engage participants with what is still to come.
Don’t forget to articulate the purpose of the icebreaker activity: This helps participants see the connection and develops an appreciation of the activity’s overall intent and the personal benefits of engagement. With these facts in mind, your participants are more likely to remain focused and actively engaged.
Remember no one ice-breaker fits all: Different icebreaker activities are more effective in different situations. Match or adjust the icebreaker activity to the nature of the event, group profile, number of participants, situation and circumstances.
Ensure icebreakers are short: Anything too lengthy will induce disinterest and impact on the time you have available for other planned activities. Ice-breakers should not take up any more than 15% of the time you have available to deliver the entire training session.
Be sensitive to the feeling of participants: Icebreakers should be fun, inclusive and non-threatening. Make sure the choice of activity and what you are asking participants to do doesn’t induce anxiety, cause embarrassment or offence, create awkwardness or engender feelings of stupidity. Leave people feeling positive and think of your reputation.
Get feedback: Asking participants what they think of the icebreaker activity is a good way of finding out how effective they are, the value they bring and the impact they have. It’s an opportunity to discover what works and what doesn’t. This means that over time you will develop confidence in employing different activities and techniques appropriately.
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