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Icebreakers and energizers

It is a good idea to use exercises called “icebreakers” and “energizers” in you process design. Here are some of my experiences and ideas about how to use them in a good way.

In a workshop you are handling some very special things:

  • The images people have of themselves and other people
  • The personal relationships between people
  • The purpose of why they are together in the workshop (eventually as part of a series of activities)
  • The level of energy of individuals and groups
  • Their future desire to be together
  • Their ability to offer their resources to each other
  • Their ability to create results together


Icebreakers are designed to “break the ice” between people. Ice is usually a description of something that makes it hard for people to learn together. In Enabling Knowledge Creation, Nonaka, von Krogh and Ichijo suggest that a strong learning culture has these qualities:

  • Mutual trust
  • Active empathy
  • Access to help and helpful experts
  • Leniency in making (uninformed) judgments
  • Courage to say what you mean and give feedback

Most icebreakers work with a combination of these qualities. The purpose of the icebreaker is to give the participants real experience of the authentic person in front of you. This is important because trust replaces the things we do not know about each other.

The simplest icebreaker is to ask people to talk to the person in the room they know the least. It breaks the ice in two ways. If you are with a person you do not know, you become more curious and ask the questions you normally would not ask someone you know. And you become a little less restricted in what you actually chose to tell about yourself. And it is impolite not to talk to a person you just said hello to and have to spend some time with. If you ask them to talk about something that are important to both of them they will experience they share an interest even though they may disagree on many things.

There are many kinds of icebreakers and they all fulfill the purpose because you ask people to do something else than what you normally do. Role-playing, painting, building sculptures, singing, dancing, playing music, juggling, exercising, moving out into nature and many other things work as icebreakers. Some of them can even be connected to the purpose of the workshop.

The more you can connect it to the purpose of the workshop and the organization you are working with the easier it is to get people to participate. You just have to remember that some people do not feel comfortable with certain kinds of activities. You can even meet cultural taboos or personal taboos in your application of icebreakers. Once in a while participants have needed therapy after participating in activities that are provocative for them. Imagine walking around blindfolded with a group of people you know or don’t know touching and moving your fingers together without saying anything. It can be interpreted like a touch, a flirt, an open sexual activity or worse. And you do not know if it is a man or a woman you are doing it with!

Most of the activities we use in an icebreaker will change the hierarchy in the group because we enter practices where someone is much better at it than others because they have practiced dancing, painting, playing music and other things outside their work or public life. Other people who usually are seen as good experts and leaders have to become novices and followers. This also opens for them behaving more “ridiculous” than they like to. Especially managers are forced to participate because it is expected of them. But there is no guaranty that they will appreciate it or the comments they might get from other people during and after the exercise.

If you use icebreaker in organizations or local communities, where people know each other already you will usually meet the challenge of choosing an icebreaker that lets people leave the behavior they are known for behind and let them protect their reputation at the same time. If you do not know exactly how an icebreaker will be received by the participants, you have to open a door for them, so they can choose to participate in a way they feel alright with. If you ask them to make drawings – and most of us draw as a child aged 11 to 12 – you tell them to draw letters and words if they find that easier. If you ask them to talk about their drawings you have to remember that they often have the language of an 11 year old.


When you are in a workshop you will feel that the energy in the room moves from very high to very low and from positive to negative. If you want to change the energy you can use energizers. They look very similar to icebreakers but you have to explain that the purpose is to build energy in the group, because they begin to look at bit tired.

Energizers primary purpose is to energize the group. Once in a while it is possible to refer to situations from their own practice. You do not even have to bring energizers. You can ask people, what they do to build more energy in the group or in themselves. And they can direct the energizer themselves. But again you can experience that they choose an activity that are alienating some of the participants. Some people have never practiced meditation and may find it strange to meditate 15 minutes in complete silence in a workshop. They could spend 15 minutes thinking that they could do more useful things instead of participating in this exercise.

In a time, where health is a priority for many people it is easy to introduce simple ways of exercising, that they could benefit from in their everyday life. You can use the same exercise several times if you tell them that they need to try it a few times, so they can choose if this is going to be a part of their future practice.

Both icebreakers and energizers can leave a lasting impression of the workshop in the participants. As a process designer and facilitator you should leave a positive impression with everyone. This is probably what they really will remember you for and talk about. This will become part of your reputation.

Categories: Design tasks
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