How often have you sat in a workshop or meeting that has begun with
Right. Let’s go round the room. Please can you tell us your name and job title/institution?
The tone of the meeting has been set in the first two minutes: repetition, passivity, dullness, information reluctantly given and only in response to a specifically asked question.
Icebreaking exercises are certainly not unique to participatory workshops and you may already have your own favourite way of getting people into the right frame of mind. If not, you may consider trying some of these.
The fascinating fact
In addition to the standard name/job title question, invite each person to also share a ‘fact’ about themselves that nobody else in the room is likely to know. This works particularly well when working with a group of colleagues who already know each other quite well and it’s amazing what fascinating facts come to light.
It’s a quick and simple icebreaker guaranteed to raise a laugh and get people sharing things between themselves.
Stand in the middle of the room and state that you represent the location of whatever town/city you are holding the event in. Declare the wall in front of you to be north, the one behind you to be south, to the left west and the right east. Now ask each participant to go and stand in the right place in the room to represent either where they last went on holiday or the location of their favourite place.
Once everyone has sorted themselves out get everyone to say where they are and, if appropriate, why it is special to them. The great thing about this one is that instantly gets people up out of their seat and moving about (a deliberately recurring theme in a lot of these exercises – it’s amazingly hard to slumber quietly in the corner when everyone is moving about!).
Even better is if we can combine an icebreaker with a means of sorting the participants into as many groups as you require for the first exercise, which the following can help you do.
Invite the participants to arrange themselves in a long line according to the month (and, where necessary, date) of their birthday, starting with January at one end and December at the other. The catch is that they need to do this without speaking at all. This obviously requires a degree of logic, some teamwork and usually a good deal of frantic hand gestures but its amazing how quickly and accurately groups often achieve this.
Once arranged in their silent line to everyone’s apparent satisfaction get them to confirm the month and where necessary the date and see how close they have come. Now, before the line breaks up you can divide the participants into however many groups you require.
Lines of preference
In some respects a variant on the people calendar. Choose a subject (any subject) with a couple of alternative options. Draw an imaginary line down the middle of the room and state that all the people who prefer, say fish and chips, move to the left of the line and those that prefer, say curry, move to the right of the line. The more they like it, the further to the end of respective half of the room they should go.
If they have no preference, or like them both equally they should hover around the middle line. You can repeat this exercise as many times as you like either using flippant topics (beer/wine, reading a book/watching TV, dogs/cats) or perhaps by starting to test the water with some of the issues under discussion (email/phone, travelling to work by bus/car etc).
Once arranged in order of preference again the group can be subdivided as required ready for the next exercise.
It’s worth remembering that these are not just exercises to use once at the beginning of the session. You may have cause to either mix up the groups or to split people into different size groups at various points throughout the session. Energy levels also ebb and flow throughout the day (especially the notorious ‘post lunch lull’).
Whenever you sense the room is starting to flag, get them up on their feet and moving around and you’ll soon see the enthusiasm start to return.
In a similar vein we should point out that although throughout this resource we have assigned different exercises to different headings, in reality they can often be used in various guises to achieve different objectives. For example, a graffiti wall can be used to identify issues but equally can be used to generate ideas and potential solutions, simply depending on the question posed to the group(s).