Why Do (Some) Icebreakers Fail to Break the Ice?

I cringe every time I see this happen.

You’ve sat patiently in a room filled with a bunch of strangers, making idle small talk where necessary and doing your best not to engage with anyone in particular.

Finally, five minutes after the declared ‘start’ of the session, the instructor finally welcomes everyone. Apparently, there’s a lot to do, and they are excited to start. But first…

“Let’s just whip around the room and …”

You know the rest.

Let’s whip around the room and ask everyone “… to stand up, tell us who you are, what you do and how bored you are.”

When I see this – and it happens waaaay too often for my liking – I just want to scream.

And worse, I can bet that 9 times out of 10, the instructor will regard this as their icebreaker [picture head in hands.] Sadly, all too often, it is not.


Why Do Some Icebreakers Fail?


Watching Chad Littlefield’s latest video this week, I was reminded of the key ingredients of a successful icebreaker. In it, he shares a really simple, yet effective partner-sharing experience that covers most if not all of the key elements that help to break the ice.

My book Serious Fun describes these elements in more detail, but here’s a quick overview for the purposes of this post:

To truly break the ice, an experience must reflect most if not all of the following five elements:

It must be:

  1. Fun – the sort of fun as described here.
  2. Non-Threatening – that is, everything must occur within your group’s Comfort Zone;
  3. Highly Interactive – you must provide ample opportunities for people to choose to mix and share with others;
  4. Simple – your instructions and stories must be quick and easy, lest you lose momentum and energy; and
  5. Success-Oriented – don’t confuse this with win/lose, but your primary intention should be to build energy, interaction and a sense of group accomplishment.

Chad’s simple story-swapping activity ticks most if not all of these boxes, which is why it works so well to break the ice.


My Challenge to You


Take a look at your program openings. cast an eye over those parts you would describe as the ‘icebreakers.”

How do they stack up when compared to these five elements?

In my experience, why do some icebreakers fail? Having been a part of and reviewed 100s of programs all over the world, the two most common pitfalls I see with what some leaders call ‘icebreakers’ are the absence of fun and a complete disregard for the threat embedded in the experience.

For example, the number one fear most people report is a fear of public speaking. Yet, somehow we have all agreed that whipping around the room in the first 2 minutes of a program and asking everyone to introduce themselves is a good idea. Wrong!

If you’re looking for some new ice-breaking ideas, click the links below.

You can also read more about what makes an icebreaker an icebreaker here and watch a short video tutorial here.

Try These Icebreakers



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