meeting, icebreaker, facilitation, Toby Elwin, blog, US Coast Guard Cutter Healy

The best meeting icebreaker to break the ice

icebreaker, meeting, facilitation, Toby Elwin, US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, Canadian Coast Guard

Icebreaker coming through. New communication opening, courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

Meeting icebreakers can be as painful as a bucket of ice down your shorts.  The icebreaker’s intent?  Loosen things up, meet people, set the stage for effective work.

The challenge, if you are going to use an icebreaker, is to understand the difference between hokey and intentional.

Know your audience is a constant refrain.  But sometimes, as a facilitator, trainer, or consultant,  you may not, always, know your audience preference or style.

Icebreakers run the risk of turning people off before you have even started the heavy lifting on why you are there; that is no good.

See also, another icebreaker exercise: Agile icebreaker

Frigid, But Thawing

Here is an icebreaker, or meeting kickoff, I learned about 10 years ago.  I am fairly certain I saw this at an Appreciative Inquiry training.  Apologies and much appreciation to who introduced me to this.

I particularly like this icebreaker as it directly lends context to different perspectives and how people communicate.  I use the icebreaker with groups, I share the concept as an analogy in one-on-one meetings, and I find it not only resonates, but people find the metaphor immediately practical.

Best of all:  it has never been confused with Kumbaya …

I have never written this down, just have it from memory, so here is my first attempt:

Learning Goal: To realize perspectives affect how everyone views things and the impact alternative perspectives has on communication.


  • Tools: Index cards, flip chart (optional),
  • Time: as little as 10 – 15 minutes as much as 30 minutes or more – the intent, learning, and takeaway should resonate equally well within most timeframes.

Perspectives Icebreaker

1.  Set Up:

Ask for volunteers (three – five). Tell the volunteers [or the reluctant] they are only volunteering to share their observations with the group. Nothing else is involved. No jumping, no trust fall, nothing, but a keen sense of observation.

Tell the group that on each index card a volunteer gets that they represent unique persona through an occupation or job title.

The volunteers are handed an index card with their persona. They are not to share what is written on the index card. On each index card is an occupation, or job title, for example:

  • interior decorator,
  • thief,
  • race car driver,
  • cook,
  • candle-stick maker.

The volunteers are to take Three – Five minutes to look around the room and with the perspective of the occupation on the index card be prepared to describe the room to the rest. Keep in mind to look at the room as this occupation might.

2. Activity:

After five minutes, each volunteer, in turn, describes to the others, without telling them, outright, what their occupation is.  The volunteer should share what they see in the room, why it is important to them, and how the room setup impacts them.  Note:  facilitator helps guide the person describing the room with clarifying questions to illicit further insights.

The rest of the room writes down [as individuals or in teams, you decide] what occupation the volunteer is describing:  an electrician, an interior decorator, etc…

All volunteers finish.

Facilitate the room to guess who the first volunteer was, and so on.

Facilitator Note: If guesses are incorrect, work with the volunteer to tease out further details [as time permits] or just ask the volunteer to tell the room or you take the roll over to provide more details until they guess correctly, or you decide to tell them.

Some examples of occupations* and their perspectives may include:

  • Secret Service Agent: number of exits, windows, what floor the room is on, how many doors, potential hiding places, drop ceiling, protection …
  • Thief: access to sneak in/out, amount of purses laying around, computer bags, jackets, lack of security cameras, lighting (dark), …
  • Interior Designer: furniture, décor, color scheme, paintings, light fixtures, carpet, …
  • Electrician: the lighting, electric outlets, audio/visual, light switches, etc …
  • Personal Trainer: space for workout, etc …
  • Fireman: number of exits, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, water, what floor of the building, emergency exit map on wall, flammable material …
  • Politician: shake hands, good lighting, project confidence … you get the idea

Facilitator Note: Bring the discussions to a close and guide the conversation about some of the learnings in the exercise. Facilitate thoughts and conversation.

Key in on how, despite each of us being in the same room, we each viewed the room through what was important to their own occupation. The perspective of each occupation changed the dynamics of the room.

3.  Key Learning Opportunities:

  1. How this exercise plays out in our professional [and personal] lives, examples you could include asyoufacilitate the discussion:
    • What is the potential impact of other perspectives to the same issue?
    • Think of a time when this may have played out without you realizing it; was it frustrating for you?
    • Was it frustrating for the other person or the rest of the team?
  2. No one perspective is correct, each perspective is correct for each:
    • We all have different perspectives, one is not better than the other.
    • We need to have patience for each other and value other perspectives or viewpoints, as well as realize what we may think is clear for us may not be viewed similarly to another.
  3. What should we do differently with this experience in mind?
  4. You may think you are explaining your business need very clearly, but not through the other business partner’s filter.
    • Our need to qualify and clarify.
    • Why do you think this is valuable?
    • Try to keep this in mind as we move through the learning or facilitation.
  5. On-going learning: After the exercise the facilitator should return to this theme to reinforce the message. For example, if team is terribly bogged-down or stuck, remind them of other perspectives that might help.

*Note:    The possibilities for occupations are up to you.  Do not limit the options to those only listed in Section 2; some occupations, obviously work better than others, use your discretion: teacher, movie star, politician; some work better, for obvious reasons.  Alternatively, a police officer and a thief as part of the exercise may describe the same scene, but from different agendas – providing another good learning opportunity.


  1. This ice breaker can scale up to any size gathering or room
  2. This ice breaker can kick off any meeting and any topic

I look forward to your thoughts, recommendations to clarify, and further insights.

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