Icebreakers, do’s and don’ts, and some that don’t suck


boring-meetings-made-betterWhen I say “icebreaker,” what images or feelings come to mind? For some people, they think “Yay, a fun game to get to know people!” For others, it is a swirling vortex of darkness and hatred.

A while ago I wrote a post describing what bad-ass mythical creatures you are. Each creature has different qualities and preferences. Whether you like icebreakers may depend on what creature you are. Unicorns, for example, love harmony and crap like that, so they tend to like them. Phoenixes are always distracted and have unlimited energy, so they like them too. Lion-Turtles love processes and don’t want to share much about themselves, so they’re leery of icebreakers. And dragons, who are action-oriented, would rather eat one of their arms than share their feelings in a wishy-washy icebreaker.

Whether we like them or not, icebreaking activities can play important roles, such as lightening the mood, building energy, improving team dynamics, and distracting people from the fact that the snacks are skimpy and probably left over from another meeting (why is the hummus so crusty?). Yet so many suck, or are deployed wrong and end up wasting people’s time or embarrassing them. Find-Someone-Who, for example. Participants are given a sheet of paper and are asked to go around the room finding people who speak four languages, has a pet chihuahua, is gluten-free, makes soap from bacon grease, or whatever. Problem is, by the end of the activity, no one remembers a single fact about anyone, and obsessive people feel resentful that they didn’t get enough time to complete their checklist. Meanwhile, “Two Truths and a Lie” should be renamed “Two Hours and a Half” because that’s how long it usually takes to get through everyone’s truths and lies.

I asked NWB’s Facebook friends for their thoughts, and after a few people recovered from the rage that seized them upon hearing the word “icebreaker,” they provided great tips. Keep in mind that icebreakers and teambuilders are different. The first is a simple exercise for participants who may not know each other very well to begin to get to know each other; the other are activities designed to improve team dynamics and tend to be more complicated and sometimes involve blindfolds and ropes, although they are usually not nearly as interesting as those items would suggest.

Also, adults and kids are different. What get on our nerves may work great with youngsters. Here are some suggestions for icebreakers with adults.


    • Don’t make people touch each other: Awkward, potentially unhygienic, and culturally incompetent.
    • Don’t make people share anything too personal: One reader recalls an activity involving “Going around the room and having to answer ‘Do you fold your underwear?’ Yes, that happened.” Yes, that’s horrible.
    • Don’t make people alliterate their names. “Let’s introduce ourselves using an adjective and an object that begin with the same sound as our first name. I’ll start. Hi, I’m victorious Vu, and I like Vick’s Vapor Rub.” You can’t help but sound and feel dumb. And it’s not my fault there are few good adjectives that begin with V!
    • Don’t make people make animal sounds: Hilarious for kids 8 and under; obnoxious and demeaning for everyone else. In fact, just avoid making people make any sort of sound besides talking.
    • Don’t make people make up silly motions: I’m talking about ones where you have to invent a motion that goes with your name. No one feels good after being forced to flap their wings like a duck, because that’s the only motion they could come up with.
    • Don’t take too long: “The ones that go on and on,” says a reader, “around the circle, everyone needs to chime in for two minutes, and the meeting doesn’t actually do anything until two hours later.” And the worst offender: “Everyone, pick up a handful of M&M’s. Oh, you picked up 38? You must now tell the group 38 personal things about yourself.”
    • Don’t make anyone throw or catch anything: It’s anxiety inducing for people who don’t have even basic athletic skills and brings back terrifying flashes of childhood where an uncaught basketball slammed them in the face and other kids laughed and laughed and they stood there and vowed that one day they would grow up and become a nonprofit director and that will show the others that will show them all!!


    • Do ask simple questions that reveal interesting information about people but does not require anyone to share overly personal information: “Name your favorite children’s book,” for example, or “If you could have one super power, what would it be?”
    • Do have people talk one-on-one. A common weakness of most icebreakers is that it tries to get everyone to get to know everyone else, which dilutes the interactions. It’s far better for someone to feel more connected to one or two other people than to drive-by meet all participants in the room.
    • Do split people into groups. Especially for large groups, it’s insanely boring and time consuming to get everyone to share something with the whole room. Breaking people into smaller teams allow them to get to know a few people better.
    • Do introduce elements of friendly competition, especially in groups. Competing against other groups helps participants bond with their own group.
    • Do ask people to share one thing they learned about someone else, if time permits. It’s very affirming when a stranger demonstrates that they listened and learned something about you and also got your name right.

Some icebreakers that I like:

    • “In your group, tell others about the origin of your name.” Everyone has an interesting story about their name, and it’s a great way to also get to know different cultures.
    • “Please say your name, your organization, and one thing that makes you happy.” Everyone has at least one thing that makes them happy, and it’s been scientifically proven that if you think happy thoughts, you become happier, and that’s a great way to start a meeting.
    • “Write down your favorite icebreaker question or anything you want to know about people on a post-it. Now go around the room and find a partner and ask your question. When I say switch, exchange the post-it and find another partner.” It’s interesting to find out what questions people ask, and how others will respond.
    • “Please pair up with anyone in the room. I’ll give you a topic to talk about. When I say ‘Switch,’ find a new partner, and I’ll give you another topic.” Do this for three or four rounds. People won’t be able to meet everyone, but they’ll know two or three people better, which is preferable to Find-Someone-Who, where you talk to a bunch of people and get to know no one.
    • “In your group, find 10 things you all have in common. It can’t be obvious, like ‘we all have ears.’ First group to find ten things in common gets to take home all the leftover hummus.”

Some icebreakers readers recommend

    • Tell the story about one of your scars.” Haven’t tried it, but it sounds interesting. Just be careful participants have not gone through horrific events that led to those scars.
    • “All My Neighbors.” The group stands in a circle (maybe each person standing on a sheet of recycled paper). One person in the center says “I like all my neighbors who…[some characteristic, such as “work in nonprofit, wears glasses, likes orange juice with pulp, etc.]” Everyone with that characteristic has to run and switch place with someone else, while the person in the center also has to run and claim a spot in the circle. Last person to switch place has to be in the circle and call out the next prompt. This activity is fun, but be sensitive to the fact that participants in wheelchairs, for example, may feel left out.
    • Anything related to food. “What’s your favorite food?” or “If you could only eat one dish, what would it be?”
    • For an astronomy event, “Create a constellation and tell the story about it.” Activities that relate to the particular topic are usually good.
    • “Rock Paper Scissors Tournament.” Review the rules of Rock Paper Scissors, then have participants pair up with the nearest person and battle, two-out-of-three wins. Loser sits down. Winner finds someone else to battle with. The game goes until one person is left standing. Give that person a prize. Or have people divide into groups, battle among their groups, and then send the semi-winners on to compete with champions of other groups. The group whose champion is the ultimate winner gets to take home the leftover hummus.

The ultimate icebreaker, as voted by NWB Facebook Friends:


  • Anna Hardy

    We had an alliteration name ice breaker in a group of women I’d never met before. In a desire to fill an awkward silence I jokingly suggested ‘Kinky Kate’ for a woman I didn’t know and unable to think of anything else she agreed it. Then each week we had to start our meeting with our ‘names’ and I wished to god every week that I’d kept my mouth shut and suspected do did she. In the end she became a good friend and the only one of the group I still keep in touch with. I wonder if she’s just holding out to get me back (!)

    • Half of my nightmares involve alliterative icebreakers (the other half involve mayonnaise…just so gross). At least Kinky Kate and you became friends; maybe it’s proof that they’re not so bad.

  • Kate Johnston

    Treasure hunts are always fun, whether you’re trying to organize an icebreaker or just finding a way to get coworkers to bond. We did one for a Christmas party, and people teamed up. It was hilarious watching our bosses searching underneath couches and in potted plants for clues!

    • Thanks, Kate. I do like activities that involve a challenge. People love things with clear objectives, especially if you throw in some competitiveness.

  • Minhngoctuyettrang Dang Tu

    Blindfolded Team Sock Tag!

    • Trang, you are the best at icebreakers. Really, even ridiculous ones are tolerable if you’re facilitating. Just don’t make me do animal sounds, and we’ll be fine.

  • Dennis Fischman

    I really like the way Changing the Future starts a lot of meetings among people who are not already friends: “What is the winding path that led you to the place you are now?”

  • Brilliant Vu, but be very, very cautious about the leftover hummus in the desert!
    Brian, Tucson

    • I miss you, Brian. When are you coming to visit me in Seattle?

      • When I can figure out how to put a bridle on those gigantic koi and ride them up the coast– send me the info. on the conference you are doing in Phoenix, that could be the next realistic opportunity! All the best and thanks again for the pit juice.

  • Leah

    This Dragon just sat through a “tell me about your favorite type of pie” ice-breaker…and wanted to die.

    • I’m sorry, Leah. I can usually tell who the dragons are in the group, because you guys start rolling your eyes and gritting your teeth as soon as an icebreaker is announced.

  • PublicHealthNerd

    Icebreaker…the term conjures up the same eye-rolling, negative feelings as “webinar”…although, done right, they can (both) be pretty fun & informative. I’ve done the “story of a scar” icebreaker. It worked great in the group we had. I’m also a big fan of 2 truths and a lie (then people try to figure out the lie). And of course, absolutely agree with the #1 icebreaker = wine suggestion!

    • Thanks, PublicHealthNerd. I like 2 Truths and a Lie if it’s fewer than 8 people. After that, I start pulling at my face, waiting for the agony to end

      • PublicHealthNerd

        HAHA…I’m not sure how I totally skipped that sentence in your blog post! I absolutely agree, if there are more than a handful (unless there is a lot of wine AND its the only thing you need to accomplish that day) it can get reeeeeally long.

  • Holli Humer Seabury

    Love that not making people touch each other made the list – now to find a way to make it a non-profit law that no one ever be forced to hug a stranger during an icebreaker…

  • At a job in my past, there were obviously staff issues – not getting along at all causing/caused by some glaring problems. When some of us pushed for retreat to discuss the problems, instead we got a whole lot of stupid team building stuff – much like the worst of what you mention.

    Sometimes all of that is just filler to avoid actually facing the real issues. Or in the case of a workshop with a bunch of strangers, to avoid actually getting to the point.

    Thank you as always, Vu, for getting to the point!

  • verucaamish

    One of my favorites is what would be on your tour rider? (i.e. no brown M&M’s)

  • Gail Kenny

    Best “icebreaker” I did in a staff retreat failed miserably, but we were all laughing so hard it didn’t matter. The point was to raise the energy following lunch. It involved wrapping paper tubes, balloons, a basket and two teams. One team had to try to get the balloons past the other team “goal-tending” the basket. Both teams staged a mutiny, reminiscent of the Bounty, and popped all the balloons. One point was to raise the energy after lunch, and the other one was to demonstrate what happens when part of our staff work against other half. Well, since they were all working together and the energy was high, who really cared how it ended? I’m a unicorn. So what if it didn’t end like I planned, if it accomplished what it was supposed to!