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It’s hard for me to think of a phrase more anxiety-inducing than

“Let’s start with an icebreaker!” 😱😳😬

When I was growing up, I loved going to summer camp. So much so, that when I became too old to be an attendee, I immediately enrolled to become a camp counsellor at only 14 years old.

I still vividly remember the very first camp councillor get-together inside a community center near where I grew up.

When I walked in, I didn’t see many familiar faces, just a sea of strangers. So, when the lead councillor asked us to get into a circle because we’ll start with an icebreaker, it sent shivers down my spine.

There were about 40 people standing in a large circle, and one by one, they introduced themselves to the group.

As my turn was inching closer, my heart was beating faster and faster 💓

I couldn’t pay attention to anything the other people said because in my head, I was editing every word I wanted to say when it was my turn. In my head, I started rehearsing “Hey, I am Jan and I am excited to be here! Hello, my name is Jan… No, it sounds better when I keep it short… Hey, I’m Jan … ”

Two more people before it was my turn.

I was thinking: “If I am quick, I could just sneak out to the washroom right now”, but that would put even more pressure on myself being the center of attention. And that was the worst nightmare.

Suddenly, it was my turn…

I was thinking: “Ok, let’s just get this over with…”

I looked around the room. I could feel everyone staring at me, their eyes judging me, waiting for me to stutter, mess up. My default in these situations was to freeze, but I just couldn’t let that happen this time.

And… I… froze… 🥶

Everyone was still looking at me. It was so awkward I wanted to disappear.

But then I mustered all my courage and just said my line: “Hey, I’m Jan and I am happy to be here!”

Then I waved my hand awkwardly and quickly looked to the person on my right to signal that I am done.

Wow, that was intense! 😓
My knees were still shaky, but I was happy I survived.

Icebreakers can be extremely useful to warm up a group, break down barriers, and build trust.

But, if you’re doing them wrong, they can backfire and make people extremely uncomfortable!

Before we can talk about what makes them fail and how to avoid your participants feeling the way I did, we should define what icebreakers actually are.

Here is an online definition I found:

An icebreaker is an activity, event, or game that is designed to break down social barriers, make others feel more comfortable, and facilitate social interaction.

Icebreakers are usually performed at the beginning of a meeting or team session and involve a group of people.

And when I asked my facilitator community to define it, this is what they shared on LinkedIn:

  • An activity that can help overcome the awkward silence between two or more human beings… 🤔
  • An engaging/collaborative activity that breaks the surface tension of a space so that information and ideas that come after have the opportunity to sink in.
  • In a learning environment, an exercise that puts the learners at ease enough to lower their defences and become receptive to learning something new.

Sounds great, so what’s the problem?

When you gather a group of strangers, you need to build trust quickly.
They need to trust you as the leader, themselves, and each other.

If this trust doesn’t exist yet, asking your participants to step outside their comfort zones (which is different for everyone) can make them get into fight or flight (or freeze in my story above).

Even if “introducing yourself” feels easy to you, it can feel rushed and extremely uncomfortable for someone who is shy, introverted, or experiencing social anxiety.

How to make your icebreakers a success?

Success comes down to your ability to lead them well!
(more on that in another email 🙂)

But I also believe that most people cringe and sigh when they hear the words “Let’s start with an ice breaker” because of the word iceBREAKER.

I mean, to me the act of “breaking” the ice sounds jarring and painful.

That’s why I started reframing the word as iceMELTERS,
“warm ups” or “connection activities”.

Visually, this requires a group to warm up slowly.

Like starting a campfire 😄🔥 (which is also something you’ll hear me talking about more soon)

But what’s even better: Don’t name your activity at all and just get right into it.

Start by explaining what you’ll do with the group and why without putting a label on the activity at all. That way you’ll avoid people crossing their arms, letting out a loud sigh and closing themselves off from truly participating – at least for now.

Want more?

This is part of a writing experiment I am doing to hit “send” after 1.5 hours – even if the message could be better or still has some spelling mistakes in it. It’s quite vulnerable to share these early drafts, but that’s what will make sure that you can expect something like this from me every Monday if you subscribe to my Ice Melters Book Updates below.

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I am writing a book that is a practical guide for empathetic leaders seeking to design group experiences that spark engagement, encourage vulnerability and unlock the power of deep connection.

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Jan Keck

Jan Keck

Trainer | Facilitator | Experience Designer · Turning Meetings into Inclusive, Engaging and Memorable Experiences 🙌