Should you use icebreakers to kick off a workshop or meeting?

3 Oct 2023


Bringing together any group from your own team to a group of strangers for a meeting or workshop can be tricky, so how can you kick it off in a way that gets everyone comfortable? When confronted with this we seem to have decided we need to 'break the ice' in the room/zoom and common practice is to use an icebreaker to get everyone chatting, meeting or more! However, does everyone feel comfortable about icebreakers? I find some facilitators swear by an icebreaker but I know when I sit down in a session and the facilitator tells us...

"Ok, we are going to kick off with a little icebreaker"

I know how I feel...

While I might look supportive and happy on the outside it feels mervous and uncomfortable inside.

So, I decided to ask how other people felt via a poll on my LinkedIn profile.

LinkedIn post capture showing the question "How does an icebreaker before a meeting or workshop make you feel?" with the following results. 'Awesome, love them!' had 19% of the vote. Ok, why not? had 23%, Ugh rather not had 35% and Help!, Where is the exit got 23%. there were 62 votes.

The results came back and it appears I am not alone in feeling trepidation when an icebreaker is introduced. Over half the respondents (58%) feel 'ugh' if not more uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave. It would surpirse you to see the types of people voting for 🥵 Help! Where is the exit? You might have expected them to be more enthusiastic.

So, what can we learn about the place for an icebreaker from the comments on the poll??
😙 Don't call it an icebreaker
🎯 Target skills and behaviours that will enhance the experience for any icebreaker. Sketching, use of a specific tool etc.
❄ Be careful your icebreaker doesn't become an 'ice former', putting someone in a position they don't want to be in.

What's in a name?

The simple point made in the comments is, don't call it an icebreaker. By introducing your first activity as "we are going to start by understanding how our Miro board works" or "Let's begin with a sketching task, because I am going to ask you to sketch later in the workshop" could be much less stress-inducing for many people. You are providing a clear purpose that relates to the wider meeting or workshop. People can get behind that.

I have also seen alternative names for such activities. Jan Keck, is a facilitator that uses 'icemelters'. In fact he is writing a book about them, where he shares his approach for building connection and warming up the room without creating awkward, stressful situations. Whatever the name there is a place for an activity to kick everything off in the right way but too often this can backfire.

Start strong... (end stronger)

Whatever you choose to call them, kicking off your gatherings, meetings and workshops with purpose is always vital. Whenever I am planning a workshop for a client I try to make the start strong and the end, stronger. Related to the book, that has had a lasting impact on my work, 'The Power of Moments' by Chip and Dan Heath, people remember the start and end of experiences. Therefore, the team will not forget an amazing icebreaker but it also means if you make them feel uncomfortable, stressed or angry in the beginning, that feeling will remain with them forever!

So, you should always be planning to start your gathering intentionally and with an activity people remember for the right reasons.

Purpose - What is an icebreaker for?

Let's think about the purpose of any icebreaker. They could include:

  • Help people get to know each other
  • Create a clear transition from a previous activity
  • Build connections for what is ahead
  • Build skills needed for the wider exercises or activity
  • Provide a reflection moment related to the topic of the meeting

Another book I refer to all the time is 'The Art of Gathering' by Priya Parker. She highlights that every gathering needs a purpose, without which... it will fail. The purpose will help you decide on the right opening activity. One simple example is when I was running a design thinking session for teachers. It was after school on a hot day and the purpose was:

Introduce design thinking to help the teachers design project-based learning that had relevance for the learners.

This meant I was trying to introduce a new concept, potentially give them a new way of working and I wanted to model the approach by getting them contributing through collaborative exercises. It is very easy to have the team become stressed when introducing new initiatives, skills, products or programs. Also, at the end of a busy day there might be a preference to sit down, rather than have to get up and walk around in an interactive exercise. So, this particular session needed the right activity to set the mood.

After a busy day in the classroom they would arrive stressed with thoughts of the next day's learning so we did a very simple thing to set the scene for our session on that hot summer day.... We provided ice lollies for them. We made space to cool down, change the script and put them in a good mood for new information. The ultimate icebreaker... 🍦

Think carefully about the purpose and you give yourself a much better chance of choosing an icebreaker (or whatever you decide to call it) that works.

Keep learning

Previously, I posted a series of posts on LinkedIn sharing some of my top icebreakers but I would reframe how I shared that now. I want to provide equitable experiences in the workshops I design and deliver, which means challenging by bias and understanding how my approaches feel for different people. One of the icebreaker packs I shared was "Fun" icebreakers. Reflecting now, are they fun for everyone?

Purposeful reinforcement of skills

The key skills I do need to support in many of my problem solving, strategy and innovation workshops are reflection and sketching.


To create new ideas we have to first be open to reflecting on

  • The key challenges
  • What we have tried
  • What the user experience is like
  • Voices we may have overlooked in the past

If this is a key part of a workshop it is great to kick off the reflections in the opening and there are a few go-to activities I use to help get the relfective juices flowing.


When it is time to create ideas, one important process to help people get creative is to encourage them to sketch, rather than write. For some this is not a natural go to and brings up insecurities about their ability to draw. Hence I like to have a fun sketching activity to open a workshop where I know I will need people to sketch later on. Here are some of my favourites...

I hope there are some ideas you can use to kick off you meetings, workshops and gatherings in the right way. Remember, the right way for me may not be the right way for you or the people in the room/zoom with you, so:

  • Link activities to the purpose of the team coming together
  • Link the activity to the skills needed to make the time together impactful.

If you have experienced some 'icebreakers' that worked for you, especially if you tend to find them awkward, stressful or triggering, please do share with me on LinkedIn


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Ben Rouse is the founder and head facilitator at Evolving Design, who help teams collaborate, problem solve and achieve their ambitious goals.

Ben worked as a teacher and trainer before moving into facilitation, bringing his expertise together to facilitate team experiences.