Any start is difficult. We have all experienced the pain of finding that first sentence in a book or the first word in a paragraph. Planning the start of lessons or meetings is no different. I have written about the hook as a good starter before, but I would now like to turn to ice breakers. Many guidelines and recommendations for online meetings and training sessions or in-person teaching emphasise the importance of ice breakers. A simple google search for ice breakers throws up 51 million results offering fun, simple, not cheesy ice breakers. The tasks range from describing your dream job to talking about your ideal day, and from naming your favourite ice-cream to playing a game of “Who is it?” based on lesser known facts. If there are so many pages and results for ice breakers, why am I adding yet another one?
I am not a fan of ice breakers. I don’t ever do ice breakers. So, this is in parts a critique of ice breakers, and in parts support with planning for starting a session effectively.
The “message” of ice breakers
In the two previous posts What’s your message? and More messages from the classroom I wrote about the messages teachers send to their students. There I explained how starting a lesson slowly, late or with a recap for latecomers sends the message that the beginning of a lesson is not important. For me, this is also the issue with ice breakers. If at the beginning of a meeting I am asked to discuss favourite foods or past pets, my focus is not led towards the contents of the session, training or meeting. Instead, I am encouraged to daydream and drift. It should become obvious that I am not anti-ice breakers per se, but more about the kinds of tasks that are set. That brings me to the next point: the role of the ice breaker.
The role of ice breakers
I have seen many guidelines and recommendations that suggest ice breakers are a must, but do not actually explain why. As a result, many people delivering a training or teaching start with ice breakers without really thinking about the aim and purpose of that task. Generally, ice breakers are tasks that will help individuals get to know each other and to stimulate discussions. But, how does knowing each other’s favourite band help with getting to know one another? And do individuals actually need to know one another to continue on the training/meeting? Again, I am not against using ice breakers, if they are there for a pedagogical reason, but I am against using ice breakers just for the sake of “breaking the ice”.
Starting discussions, meetings, training, lessons…
If individuals need to know one another, a brief round of introductions is necessary. For that purpose, stating your name, your role and perhaps your favourite flower could be interesting. But in many situations, individuals do not need to bond over football clubs and singers. The point of the meeting, training, lesson is not to get to know each other but to learn about or discuss specific subject matters. The discussion starter therefore could and should be related to the contents that are taught or talked about. A group of people coming together to discuss the strategic vision of an organisation will not do a better job if they know each other’s desert island list. But focussing everyone on existing strengths and weaknesses in the existing vision will limit day-dreaming, focus minds and ultimately move matters forward more quickly.
When people do not talk…
Of course, there are situations where group dynamics are difficult and individuals do not wish to start talking to each other or to the plenary. Firstly, we need to make sure that the questions we ask are relevant, exciting, focussed and precise. “What do think?” is too broad and so individuals may not be ready to share. But “Where do you think our vision is formulated well/badly?” is asking for a more detailed response. And secondly, let us not be scared to wait, because sometimes people need time to think and formulate their thoughts before they are able or willing to share.
And if people still do not want to talk?
In my rather many years of teaching and delivering sessions, I have yet to encounter a situation where nobody was willing to kick off a conversation. But this brings me back to the start of this post: the hook. With a really good hook, people will remember your lesson forever, but a good enough hook will get that discussion started. In a way, hooks are ice breakers without unnecessary distractions.