Why Ice Breaker Games Work When Used Correctly

By: Michiel Van Kets


Simple ice breakers include topics such as an individual describing three facts about themselves - two of which are true and one which is not. Other group members have to decide and vote one which one to choose as the untrue fact. A variation on this theme includes a short presentation by individuals to the rest of the group that includes where they work, time employed by the company and a little known fact about themselves. A third form of ice breaker involves pairing off and having short 5 minute interviews where each probes the other with a view of then describing their partner to the group.

For most attending such sessions there is a sense of foreboding and a desire not to be seen as foolish or different hence the level of interaction can be low from the start. Getting people engaged and bringing down some of the communication barriers is a great way to improve the effectiveness of meetings or to start a team building exercise.

One theory suggests that ice breaker games developed in the 1960's from a psychology trend called the Human Potential Movement. The belief is that all individuals possess hidden talents and abilities that can be best drawn out and encouraged by interaction with others in a group environment. One tool to encourage participation was to develop assertive behaviour and so games were developed that encouraged people taking the initiative and starting communication with others. This then helped the whole group to interact and, hence, team formation to begin.

From this concept a whole range of icebreaker games have been developed to encourage groups of strangers meeting for the first time to interact. Such exercises do not work as well when groups of people come together who already have a good working knowledge of each other or who have been through a similar exercise in the past. The value is in breaking barriers between strangers.

With groups that already know each other but where the teambuilding still has not started to gel, other ice breaker games can be introduced that build upon previous experiences. Two proven examples are:

Trust Walk- Group members are paired and one is blindfolded. The sighted team member has to guide the blindfold member through a room of obstacles without touching them. This simple exercise develops trust and improves communication.

Pickpocket - A competitive timed game between groups of individuals where they have to source a range of items as fast as possible from within the room. These can include a wrist watch, handkerchief, receipt, calculator or any items that may be a challenge to immediately find.

All the above icebreaker games work well in relatively small and controllable groups that are either strangers to each other or have some experience of working together in the past. However ice breaker games can also be employed in very large meetings although there are a number of rules to make sure that it does not become overly time consuming or chaotic.

One such ice breaker is to prepare a sheet containing a sensible number of criteria such as 'play the piano' or 'visited Greece'. Each delegate gets a copy of the sheet and has to scour the room looking for people that match the criteria and have them sign the sheet. But no person can sign the sheet for more than one individual for any given activity. First to complete the task wins.

Simon Says is another task that can act as an ice breaker for a large group. Here a presenter informs the group to carry out tasks such as raising a hand if preceded by the words, 'Simon says' else ignore them. The presenter then instructs the group including commands preceded by, 'Simon says' and others where there is no prefix. Failure leads to elimination - last person who follows the commands correctly wins.

A quicker large group ice breaker game is to have participants try out a number of different styles of handshakes - some involving two hands, other with fast pumping action or limp grips. Discussing what these different handshakes convey acts as an icebreaker.

There are numerous variations on any of the themes described above but the key is to select an icebreaker game that reflects the group that is meeting. As a guide, there are a number of icebreaker games that have been rated as the top five worst as should be avoided at all cost. These usually involve inappropriate physical contact or a level of personal embarrassment - the exact opposite of what is desirable from a good ice breaker game.

Number five is the shoe game. As participants enter the room they have to remove a shoe which is then placed in a heap. Once everyone is inside each selects a shoe and finds the owner. Personal hygiene and embarrassing holes in socks make this one a no no.

Number four is the human knot. Group members hold the right hand of someone opposite and then the left hand of someone else. Challenge is to disentangle without releasing.

Number three is 'I like me because'. Team members must speak for a couple of minutes about themselves but only saying things they like. Can be a terrible ego trip for some and bore for the other.

Runner up in least successful icebreaker games is bumper crash. This is like musical chairs where members are instructed to drive imaginary cars around the room and then bump into someone when the music stops. Drivers then exchange information about themselves. This is considered childish and demeaning to many who have experienced this game.

And the winner of the least effective ice breaker game is the wordless noise game. Participants are assigned an animal name and have to find their partner in the room but only by making the noise of the animal. To add to the embarrassment everyone is blindfolded.

Icebreakers can work well with many different types of group to start the team building process and lower barriers to effective communication. However, make sure to choose the right one for the group else the results could be less than satisfactory.

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Michiel Van Kets writes articles about The Stairway Consultancy. If you are looking for high impact training material such as the ice breakers The Stairway offers ice breaker games, tool kits, books and DVDs which are ready to use at any training and conferences. Find out about icebreaker games.

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