How Icebreakers Fail Trainers

Search Google for “icebreakers” and you will find almost 4.5 million hits.  They cover everything from The 23 Best Icebreaker Games for Adults  to Icebreakers that Rock.  You can even find icebreakers for specific situations like non-profit board meetings or to break awkward silences.


But here’s the thing, most icebreakers suck. Catherine Strauss from the Daily
Californian wrote a great article called Why We Hate Icebreakers, where she outlines six reasons why people hate icebreakers. The article is short but accurate, and I’ve personally found it to be true repeatedly.

Examining the issue from a different angle, I want to look at it from the perspective of why trainers should hate icebreakers, and then consider a better alternative.

Any good training event should flow. By that, I mean one section should naturally progress and build into the next. The start of an event is when the attendees are naturally most attentive and engaged. How do many events start? By making them play a silly game that has nothing to do with the rest of the event. This is supposed to help them get to know each other and feel more comfortable.

All it really does is take the attendee’s energy and excitement (hopefully) for being there and channel it into an activity totally unrelated to the desired outcomes of the event. After all, what better way to achieve your learning objectives than to make people uncomfortable, unhappy, annoyed, or embarrassed?

Instead, trainers should be designing activities that set the stage for the rest of the event. Take that valuable energy and channel it in the right direction right away, rather than burn it on an unrelated game.

I was recently asked to facilitate the board meeting of a non-profit organization and one of my tasks was to create an icebreaker to start off the two-day event. In my planning meetings with the Executive Director and the Board President, it came to light that a lot of the staff was new, as were several board members. There is a lot of positive change going on in this organization, but the staff and board don’t know each other very well.

I could have gone the traditional route of choosing an icebreaker that had them get to know each other a bit through a game that revealed favorite foods, books, etc. But as we saw in Strauss’ article, that’s not fun for a lot of people. Instead, we designed an opening activity that reveals why each person is passionate about working with this non-profit. The prompt will be emailed to all attendees prior to the retreat so they can put some thought into it and reveal some heartfelt emotions. This sets the stage for the rest of the retreat.

This approach channels the energy and thoughts of each person, and can also shape conversations throughout the retreat in a very positive way. It also has the side benefit of helping people get to know one another in an area they are all passionate about, and can even help with decisions throughout the weekend (say if they need to assign something, they can pick who was passionate about that area.)

So, ditch the icebreakers. The attendees will thank you. Then you can create meaningful interactions that channel that early energy into supporting the goals of the event.

This entry was posted in Communication, Training, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Icebreakers Fail Trainers

  1. Steve Potratz says:

    Good article. I agree with it. The opening is so important for setting the tone and getting people to remove barriers and talk with one another. Last week in my study I asked “When you are troubled, what are some of the most comforting words a friend can say to you?” It was one of the best questions I’ve ever used.


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