Think icebreakers are touchy-feely? Think again. The right icebreaker can profoundly change the tone of a meeting.

The Collective Impact #ToolBox is a series of blogs featuring simple, practical tools that members of cross-sector partnerships can use to support their day to day work.

I came to Living Cities with a business and military background and let me tell you, I saw meeting icebreakers as silly and touchy-feely. In hindsight, I had a lot to learn about facilitation! Time is precious and limited, but I have seen repeatedly how the right icebreaker can profoundly change the tone of a meeting.

This is especially true in the early stages of collective impact work, when the norms and culture of a partnership are still developing. Even when you are starting with a “coalition of the willing,” potential partners come to the table with independent agendas, professional titles, and assumptions about how the work of the partnership can and should unfold. Positive culture is an essential, and often underestimated, enabler of healthy, high-performing teams. A positive culture must be intentionally established and continuously nurtured because it is the binding agent of any recipe for change.

One simple, practical way to build culture is with well-chosen icebreakers at the start of every meeting.Icebreakers can be warm-up questions, mini-exercises, or fun activities. A few things to consider when choosing the right one for your meeting include:

What is the desired meeting result?

“Your overall agenda should be built around achieving both tangible and intangible results.”

This one is pretty straight-forward. What are your goals for the meeting, and what potential barriers to achieving that result might need to be addressed up front? How can you use icebreakers to set the tone to super-charge what is already likely to be a great meeting? There are many different ways to to think through these challenges and opportunities, including other questions I’ve outlined in this blog. But, your overall agenda should be built around achieving both tangible and intangible results.

How do you want people to show up?

“One of the first steps to getting folks to work differently together and work well together is by establishing everyone in the group as a human.”

In cross-sector groups, most people default to “showing up” as a representative of their respective organization and/or sector. If asked to introduce themselves, they will usually share their name and title. There is nothing wrong with that, but this default goes beyond a simple introduction. It is a subconscious choice and indicator of a participant’s state-of-mind, loyalties, and perceived behavioral expectations. For example, they perceive their role in the room as “Brittany DeBarros, Living Cities representative” as opposed to “Brittany DeBarros, human concerned about inequity in her community.” The point here isn’t that these “roles” are mutually exclusive. It is simply a social norm to default to professional personas and it takes intentional effort to bring out the personal. One of the first steps to getting folks to work differently together and work well together is by establishing everyone in the group as a human, with shared stake in both the problems and the promising solutions.

How do you want people to feel?

Idea: An icebreaker where partners share one thing about another member’s work that impressed them since the last meeting.

The answer to this question could be any number of things: included, unified, safe, valued, acknowledged, empowered, etc. The feeling that participants start and leave a meeting with is one of those intangible results that directly affects group behavior, culture and thus, results. For example, when partners are growing defensive and territorial, this could be a result of individuals not feeling valued and acknowledged in the group. These feelings and resulting behavior can hamstring progress in any group, but especially in one that operates outside of any one organization or formal authority structure as cross-sector partnerships do. An icebreaker where partners share one thing about another member’s work that impressed them since the last meeting, could be one way to establish a tone of acknowledgement and start to eat away at the defensiveness causing progress to stall.

What anxieties and/or assumptions need to be acknowledged up front?

“Icebreakers can be an effective way to put these subtle but powerful factor on the table upfront…”

This may sound similar to the last question, but this is more about change management. Humans are creatures of habit. Habits give us predictability and comfort. Even when we are doing different things, we tend to do those things in the same old ways. Collective impact requires partners to both do different things, and to do things differently. This creates anxiety for folks and the best way to tackle those anxieties is to find ways to air them out upfront. Similarly, we all come to the table with conscious and unconscious assumptions about everything. Research on unconscious bias shows that when issues such as race are explicitly called out upfront, unconscious biases are significantly less likely to affect behavior. Additionally, assumptions about why the status-quo systems are failing, what problems should be prioritized, and what solutions are viable have derailed otherwise great ideas over and over again throughout business, government, and nonprofit work. Icebreakers can be an effective way to put these subtle but powerful factor on the table upfront, so that the work can move forward more smoothly and with better results.

How much time do you have?

“Icebreakers should be thought of as an investment in culture.”

Icebreakers should be thought of as an investment in culture. Culture facilitates (or derails) results. How much time you have is a practical question and not every meeting needs a full exercise as a warm-up. Sometimes a quick, light warm-up question is the right fit. However, consideration is important because when time is tight, investments in the intangible results are often the first to fall by the wayside. It is important to choose practically, but remember that it isn’t “lost meeting time.” It is time invested in the connective tissue holding your partnership together.

There are so many great icebreakers out there so to get you started, we have curated a few favorites from our colleagues and partners doing this work in the field.

Resource Document: Meeting Icebreakers
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A more in-depth resource I have used and recommend is the the book Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Innovative Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action. What are your favorite icebreakers or related resources? Share in the comments box or by emailing bdebarros@livingcities.org.