Have you ever been invited to lead an event, or head a training, but for the duration of the workshop/training, it just seemed like the only person (REALLY) interested in what you were saying - and not merely listening to seem polite - seemed to be...yourself??
Well, it's happened to me a couple of times when I just started out in giving organizational training sessions. And while I always felt like I was being as convincing as I could possibly be (hey, I'm no Jennifer Aniston), I still felt this…'disconnect' with the audience. Like they listened, but were not drawn into the session.
More recently, I have come to learn that it is far better to make such sessions interactive in nature, so as to elicit responses, and necessitate mental involvement. But the question is: how do you make the session interactive? Do you just point fingers at people randomly asking them to answer questions, and risk antagonism by appearing to be dictatorial? Or do you plead with the audience to become more interested in the training, in which case you risk the chance of losing that 'edge' you have over them (ummm...you just passed the buck of creativity!) Well, that's where Ice-breakers come in.
According to Susan M. Heathfield (http://humanresources.about.com/od/glossaryi/g/what-is-an-ice-breaker.htm) "An ice breaker is an activity, game, or event that is used to welcome and warm up the conversation among participants in a meeting, training class, team building session, or other event".
The function of an ice-breaker is self explanatory i.e. to literally break the ice between participants at the meeting. It is often applied at the beginning of the meeting, and would often involve a series of (not so formal) questions, or a game which enables the participants to loosen up and be able to get interactive with each other, without the fear of being awkward, or saying the wrong things. That fear of making mistakes in the presence of the group, or being shy in the presence of the other people has been eroded by the ice-breaker, thereby enabling each person freely participate in the group conversation.
Ice-breakers are particularly useful when the event or session would elicit better results by the participation of all the members, especially when each person's personal opinion(s) of the subject-matter is relevant to the discussion. Ice-breakers also come in handy when the participants in the event are total strangers, thus enabling them familiarise with one another. Sometimes, the participants may not be complete strangers, for example, in the workplace. However, by virtue of their common ground being just work, colleagues may have never really had the opportunity to loosen up to one another. An example of an ice-breaker which may be used in this instance is asking each person in the group to describe the person seated next to her/him using an inanimate object, while stating reasons for the use of such object in the description.
In using ice-breakers however, the moderator has to be careful not to use the wrong ice-breakers. For example, using an ice-breaker which has cultural or religious inferences, and which may make some person feel uncomfortable due to their cultural/religious orientation. Or, in a training where the participants are not all in the same cadre within the organization, the moderator should be careful not to use an ice-breaker in which superiors may interpret the action(s) of her/his subordinates as veiled insubordination. In such cases where the event involves people of differing organizational cadres, the moderator can adopt an ice-breaker in which each person can reveal a little about themselves earlier unknown to the group, without necessarily giving room for unwelcome commentary by others.
It would also be important to take into consideration the size of the group. Some very active ice-breakers would make the group seem unwieldy, if used in a large group. Others may lose their effect, if the number of people in the group is insufficient to execute it.
In summary, ice-breakers are situation-specific. It would thus help the moderator in deciding which ice-breaker to use to conduct a little research on the group vis-a-vis the subject of the meeting, prior to the meeting.
For more examples on ice-breakers, you can visit http://www.icebreakers.ws/. Don't forget to drop your comments below.