When I began working at Xerox almost 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of learning how to deliver training from the great Emmett Reagan. He was responsible for teaching every Xerox instructor how to conduct his or her training program.  Emmett was a longtime “Xeroid” and when he spoke about training, you listened.  One of the first things Emmett taught me was not just how, but why, to run an icebreaker in a training program.

The “how” to run an icebreaker is the easy part.  It can be as simple as writing down a couple of questions on a flipchart and moving around the room soliciting responses.  It might also be segmenting the room into groups of two, and having each participant interview and then introduce the partners they have just met. The combinations of icebreaker activities are endless, but the results and the impact on the mood of the room are fairly predictable.

However, Emmett Reagan also taught me “why” to run an icebreaker.  When you bring people from different companies or departments together, the success of your program often depends on the level of participation from the group.  A good icebreaker can teach you a lot about the personalities in the room.  Spotting the social personalities gives a speaker important information about who to guide questions to if none are being asked.  The speaker can also learn who are the more aggressive personalities, as well as other personality roles to watch out for when bringing people together.

A good icebreaker can teach you better ways to communicate and connect information to the participants.  I’ve never run an icebreaker without slipping in a question about hobbies.  You would think a question like that is asked for the enjoyment of the individual, but it actually provides extremely important information to me.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached a roadblock trying to communicate a particular concept to a participant, only to reach out and connect my topic to his or her hobby.

Yes, there are many great reasons to run an icebreaker to warm up a room of participants.  So why is it that icebreakers seems to be one of the first things cut from the agenda?  I can tell you in one word; “time.”  Icebreakers take time to complete, and even the pros like Rob Jolles fall into the trap of believing that the thirty minutes or so a good icebreaker can take might be better used by filling that slot with more curriculum and counting on facilitation skills to warm up the room.

I have been guilty of doing just that; I have been taking out the icebreaker exercises in my seminars until a few weeks ago.  I was conducting a program that had participants coming in from all over the country, and I thought the time would be well served spending a short period of time letting them get to know each other and me.

The change in the mood was palpable: It went from a quiet, reserved environment to a high energy, intensive participation program.  That’s because the group had bonded.  I was hearing a steady stream of excellent questions from many individuals because they didn’t just feel safe with me; they felt safe with each other.  At the end of the program, participants from different companies were exchanging contact information;  They were building study groups, with the intent of having conference calls once a month to reinforce what had been learned.  They were looking for ways to support each other in the implementation of the ideas taught.  That wasn’t my idea; it was theirs!

It’s surprising how we often move away from helpful habits, and not because they are no longer useful, but because we are simply tired of doing the same thing.  Something as simple as an icebreaker, that was taught to me 25 years ago, is just as relevant as ever.  The next time you are beginning a program, don’t forget to sacrifice the time necessary to warm up the room.  Emmett was right: It is time well spent.

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