4 of our Favourite Ways to Break the Ice
The best icebreakers and energizers every facilitator should have in their back pocket.
I recently facilitated a two-day strategic planning session IRL (in-person with no reminder to unmute). The session gathered 20 people who had not been together in person since 2019. Although it was a welcomed change of pace to virtual facilitation, it was a bit of an adjustment for all of us to get back into the swing of in-person collaboration. But with the help of a few trusty icebreaker and energizer activities, a trepidatious group quickly busted out of their shells for what became one of the most collaborative, creative, and productive sessions I’ve ever been a part of.
Anyone who has facilitated a group of individuals before, whether in creative thinking workshops or regular status meetings, knows the value of optimizing group dynamics to achieve your desired objectives. Icebreakers are designed to welcome attendees, create a comfortable space, and warm up the conversation. Energizers are quick, fun activities to liven up a group. Both are staples in every facilitator’s toolkit. What was most apparent to me over the course of those two-days in-person is the enhanced value these icebreakers and energizers (though they can be perceived as silly little games or distractions) can offer after two years of online collaboration.
Whether you’re facilitating in-person or hybrid group sessions, here are my favourite icebreakers and energizers that are simple, effective, and require minimal preparation.
Icebreaker #1: Speed Dating
This is great for a group of 8 people or more who don’t know each other at all or very well.
How it works:
1. Have everyone stand up, form two lines facing each other, and ask them to pair up with the person across from them.
2. As a facilitator, you’ll want to prepare a few questions to help spark conversations during the speed date beforehand. I recommend putting them on a whiteboard, screen, or flip chart where all the “daters” can see them. These questions should be simple. Think: Introduce yourself, your role, and share one highlight from the summer or what are you looking forward to most today?
3. Put 1-2 minutes on the clock and let the dating begin.
4. When time is up, have one line to stay in place, and have the other line all shift one spot to the right. Hit 2 minutes on the timer again.
5. Rinse and repeat until everyone in each line has met.
If you don’t have enough time to go through everyone, facilitate as many rotations as time allows. Don’t be surprised if the daters ignore the instructions and skip a rotation to keep chatting with someone longer or a group date forms. Trust me, it’s happened. The important part is folks have warmed up, got to know one another and you’ve created a welcoming space for the day.
Icebreaker #2: Show & Tell
This is a great icebreaker for groups of people of any size who know each other well and can be done in-person, virtually or in a hybrid setting. It leverages the power of photography to develop deep connections between people in an instant.
How it works:
1. Ask folks to get into smaller groups of 4-6 people. If you’re virtual, split people into breakout groups. If you’re hybrid, have folks form groups in their respective environments.
2. Ask everyone to pull out their phone and pick one photo stored on their phone from the last 6 months that they love the most.
3. If you have the time, provide each person in the group the opportunity to share their photo and the story behind it. Otherwise, have folks rotate their phones around the group if possible, or if you’re not comfortable touching each other’s phones, ask for volunteers to share.
You’ll be surprised how much you learn about someone through a photo, especially someone you know and work with often. There’s always something more to learn!
Energizer #1: Rock, Paper, Scissors Championships
This is a fan favourite! I get some skeptical looks when I introduce this, but by the end the room is vibrating with cheers. This energizer is best for groups of 14 or more and can be done in-person or in a hybrid format.
How it works:
1. Announce that within a matter of 5-10 minutes we’ll crown a rock, paper, scissors champion!
2. Ask everyone to stand up and find an opponent. This will be their first face-off. Through a best two out of three, a winner will be named from this first round.
3. Every winner from this first round then finds another first round winner to have a second round face off (best two out of three). The losers from the first round now become the cheerleaders for the person they lost to. It usually takes some encouragement from the facilitator to get the cheering going.
4. After the second round, each winner finds another winner, each loser becomes another cheerleader with the cheering squads growing in size. This game can get loud, so best not to do it in a space that is not conducive to loud noise.
5. Repeat until there are only two players left, with two massive cheering squads. The finals begin, and an ultimate champion is named. This final round often requires some refereeing, and no matter the outcome there is always a request to play it all over again.
If you’re in a hybrid environment, have the group joining virtually compete amongst themselves. Depending on the number of people, it may require you to put them in breakouts groups. The championship final round will have the winner of the virtual group face-off against the winner of the in-person group. Trust me, it works.
Energizer #2 The Mash Up:
I love a good mental energizer especially when people are feeling drained or have hit a mental block. Next to a good 15-minute brain and bio break, my favorite way to energize the brain is what I call ‘the mash up’. This can be done virtually, in-person or in hybrid environments with groups of any size. It can be facilitated in groups or individually.
How it works:
1. Ask the group for two random objects.
2. Write them down with your best attempt at an accompanying image in a place everyone can see. If in-person, write on a whiteboard or flip chart paper. If virtual, write in an app such as PowerPoint or Keynote.
3. Set a timer for 5 minutes and ask everyone to think of as many potential inventions combining these two objects as possible. If in groups, they’ll write them down as a group.
4. Encourage the group to think outside the box and go for quantity. As a facilitator, walk around the room calling out some of the ideas you’re seeing.
5. Ask each person or group to share their best mashups.