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Icebreakers ☆

Dear Friends,

Today as of this posting, I launch a new venture: Civic Reinventions, Inc. Civic Reinventions is a dream long in the making and a dream come true. My vision for Civic Reinventions is that every organization and nonprofit committed to building a more compassionate, just, prosperous and beautiful world, thrive. May it be so. And, in the fullness of time, may all be well.


Mark Smutny   


“When troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops that’s where you’ll find me.” Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz

Great icebreakers launch a great meeting. They dissolve barriers among strangers. Bad icebreakers freeze the ice harder and freak out introverts by demanding intimate details from complete strangers. At its best, a good ice breaker is a proven facilitator’s strategy to make the beginning of meetings thrive.

A zillion icebreakers exist on the Internet. Written for every occasion from the first date to waiting in the line at the airport to the annual corporate retreat, they can be ridiculous and invasive:

“What fruit do you want to be when you grow up?”


“If you were a keyboard, what type would you be?”

“Really? “What insect best resembles your personality?”

“I have no idea but I’d like to squish the damn bug.”

Cutesy icebreakers that put the shy on the spot are cruel. Icebreakers that turn an extrovert into a fountain of excess may turn off the introvert’s spigot.

“If you were Godzilla, what would you say to your mother?”

Extrovert: Wow! What a great question! Mom! Blah! Blah! Blah! That was fun!

Introvert thinking silently: “Are you kidding me? I’m out of here.”

By definition, good icebreakers break the ice. People relax, laugh and the room warms up with the buzz of conversation. Preoccupations are parked at the door. A good icebreaker cuts a passageway for the whole group to leave port, confident, energized and focused on the agenda at hand. A discussion about types of fruit you are only works at a meeting of produce sellers.

Icebreakers like those that follow serve a dual purpose. They put people at ease and focus the mind on the topic at hand.

If your meeting is about affordable housing, ask something like, “Where was the shabbiest place you ever lived and why?”

If your summit focuses on transportation ask, “What was the most unusual trip you ever took?”

If about environmental justice and climate change ask, “If you were a cheetah, where would you run and hide?”

You will be amazed when you overhear well-designed icebreaker conversations. Folks will laugh and easily go deep as they engage the topic at hand.

Icebreakers don’t need to be silly. They can be poignant, even tender. For example, at a meeting of biking and neighborhood advocates I facilitated in Pasadena, California, I used the icebreaker, “When did you first discover you could be unsafe on a bike?” People shared stories of their first fall or accident when they were children learning to ride. Some mentioned close brushes with clueless drivers who nearly killed them. One talked about slipping on gravel in a parking lot when he was six, telling his parents, “I’ve had a hard life. My cat ran away and I fell off my bike.” Another refused to answer, saying it was private. However, even in her silence, the icebreaker helped her become aware of the power of emotions that were present that evening.

The structure of a decent icebreaker is simple. As facilitator, get the group’s attention. Use a firm voice, clink a glass or, my favorite, ring a chime. As a professional facilitator, I always carry a chime in my bag of tricks. Once the room quiets, give the instruction (The following icebreaker was for a conference on transportation for senior and persons with disabilities).

“Welcome. Thanks for being here.” Announce the theme of the day or the name of the event and its purpose. Then say, “It’s ice breaker time. Pick one person and turn to that person now. Ask, ‘What was it like getting to this meeting?’ Each person take one minute and switch. You may begin.”

Prepare for an avalanche of animated talk. You will have led the group into a delightfully fun beginning and maybe one that touches the heart. Your icebreaker will help the group thaw and engage the topic at hand. In less than five minutes, your group will be off to a great start.

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