What Is an Ice Breaker?

What Are 3 Kinds of Ice Breakers and How Are They Used in Meetings?

Small group ice breakers warm up participants' conversation.
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An ice breaker is an activity, game, or event that is used to welcome and warm up the conversation among participants in a meeting, training class, team building session, or another event. Any event that requires people to comfortably interact with each other and a facilitator is an opportunity to use an ice breaker.

An effective ice breaker will warm up the conversation in your training class or meeting, reinforce the topic of the session, and ensure that participants enjoy their interaction and the session.

When participants don’t know each other, the ice breaker will help them introduce themselves to the other participants.

When meeting participants do know each other or are participating in a regularly scheduled meeting, an ice breaker is still effective to warm up the conversation. In a mid-sized manufacturing company, participants in a department's scheduled weekly meetings took turns bringing an ice breaker to lead at the start of the meeting.

These ice breakers did warm up the conversation and build employee interaction. They also helped participants to develop meeting leadership skills which made them more effective team leaders.

3 Main Types of Ice Breakers

Three main types of ice breakers are used in these meetings.

The first type of ice breaker is just for fun. When participants know each other, laughter and conversation generated by the ice breaker, warm up the group. When participants are strangers, the ice is broken and participants learn something about each other.

This ensures that introductions and initial conversations occur; these are key to make sure that participants enjoy and find value in the session.

The following are examples of ice breakers you will want to use when fun and comfortable conversations are the goals.

Example Ice Breakers

The second type of ice breaker introduces or segues into the topic of the training session or meeting. It might also generate laughter and conversation, but its clear purpose is to open up the topic of the session.

An example of this type of ice breaker is asking the group to identify the characteristics of their best team experience to introduce a session on team building. Here are additional formats that you can use. 

Example Ice Breakers

The third type of ice breaker is an activity based on the purpose of the session. For example, a Human Resources department wanted to find out why they took 3-4 months to replace an employee who resigned. They found this performance unacceptable and it did not meet the needs of their organization.

The ice breaker activity encompassed a full meeting session during which they flow charted their entire hiring process as it existed at that moment. Since this was an immediate activity that everyone in the department could participate in, it served as its own ice breaker.

A second example of an activity ice breaker is a commonly used approach to debriefing work events or activities. For example, a team met to debrief an employee team building event that is scheduled annually. Instead of using an artificial ice breaker, their ice breaker was a brainstorming session about the event.

They identified what went well about the event and what went poorly. Since every member of the team attended and had opinions, this exercise functioned as their ice breaker.

Variations on these three approaches exist, but these are basically your three main kinds of ice breakers.

Why Use an Ice Breaker?

Ice breakers play a significant role in events in which communication and participant comfort level are important factors. They help you ensure that all attendees are equal participants.

They break down the barriers that exist inherently and by design in workplaces. These include the organization's hierarchy, organization chart, job titles, and various departmental entities. Following are reasons why you will want to consider using an ice breaker.

  • When participants know each other and you want to warm up and get the discussion flowing comfortably, an ice breaker is in order.
  • When participants know each other and work in different areas or departments, an ice breaker will break the ice that can occur between silos.
  • When participants know each other but have different job titles and levels within your organization’s chain of command, an ice breaker can break down the barriers that might inhibit honest, comfortable communication.
  • When participants are strangers, an ice breaker is a comfortable, simple way to make introductions, help people start communicating and sharing thoughts, and generally, warm up the room.
  • When participants don’t know each other but share a mission, an interest or an idea and have a lot in common, an ice breaker warms up the group prior to more serious discussion of the topic. You can use a topic that allows the group to enter into the topic discussion but not the more weighty issues at hand. 
  • When participants are diverse: various ages, ethnic groups, profit and nonprofit organizations, job titles within their organizations, and have unknown areas of commonality and shared interests, an ice breaker is essential to get people talking, generate laughter and start with an initial level of warmth within the room.

Selecting or Developing an Ice Breaker

A variety of ice breakers are available. If you’d like to develop your own ice breaker or team building activity, you can learn more about how to develop an ice breaker.