Are ice-breakers naff?

At the start of any training event, it’s likely that the participants will have to engage in an ice-breaker. Many of us (me included) dread it: we don’t want to be embarrassed or made to stand out of the crowd by saying or doing something stupid.

With this in mind, when I’m designing training courses or small workshops, I think long and hard about how to ease the participants into the session.

Last year I read Nancy Kline’s Time to Think, which had a profound impact on me. Subsequently I wrote a book review, which you can read the book review here or here (HSJ).

The reason I only gave Nancy’s book four stars is that, whilst I liked what she was saying  (enough to put some of it into practice) I didn’t truly believe in the magic that she was describing.

Nancy starts every meeting by asking the attendees to do two things:  
a) state one thing that they did last week which made them feel proud of themselves.


b) turning to the person on the left, to say one thing that you really respect them for.

Everybody gets to speak twice before the meeting has even begun.  For the first 10 minutes, every comment made is a positive one. The impact?  There is a dynamic shift in the room. Everybody feels relaxed, upbeat, positive and willing to contribute.

Last week I was working with a team that has had some difficult few years, has just recently has turned the corner and is on the road to recovery.  We started with this ice-breaker, and by the time we finished there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  Not  because they were sad, but because of the overwhelming emotions they were feeling. They all liked each other already, just nobody had expressed it before. And they liked what they heard.

It was magical. Just like Nancy said it would be.

Going back to the start, I believe that on the whole ice-breakers are naff.  Why do trainers and facilitators like to torture us by making participants behave like animals – literally?  And what purpose do these particular interventions serve?

From my point of view, there’s no reason why we can’t strive to find respectful and effective ice-breakers like the one I’ve described above.    Those trainers who don’t just let our industry down.