In 1912, an unsinkable ship, the Titanic, sank when it hit an
iceberg. In modern-day learning situations, unwitting trainers sink
training programs when they announce, "We're going to start with an
icebreaker." Most of the participants, in response, experience a
sinking feeling. And they may be right.
The human brain is wired to preserve the person it inhabits.
Consequently, it has two primary goals: survival and pleasure.
Survival is obviously important. Without survival, the brain itself
cannot function. Pleasure is less obvious but equally important.
Survival mode requires a large, complex amalgamation of sharp,
fully functioning, brain cells. Pleasure is the brain's way of
keeping itself buffed up for the next threat.
Icebreakers run counter to both of these brain instincts. The
classroom is a threatening environment. It can feel as frosty as
ice. The very term icebreaker creates the wrong metaphor
for this environment. The goal of the first learning segment should
be to defrost the ice, not break it. Learning can intimidate
adults. Attending learning means admitting a lack of knowledge, and
by inference, an admission of incomplete adultness. The learners
are then forced to admit their perceived incompleteness in a
strange, uncomfortable room, in front of strangers, and to an
instructor they likely do not know who controls their fate.
In addition, many people have negative memories of school, and
training is all too reminiscent of those memories. Based on those
school experiences, adults may also have a negative image of their
ability to learn. Still others, especially those required to
attend, have negative suspicions about management motives.
Even if the trainer can steer the learners successfully past the
survival instinct and into the icebreaker, another problem arises:
Icebreakers are simply, usually, not fun. They do not exercise the
brain. They give no pleasure. The result is a bored brain or worse,
a brain slipping back into survival mode.
Fortunately there is a specific path that steers clear of this
survival while maximizing the first 15 minutes of the training
program. The following steps will help you relax your participants
and give them a pleasurable experience.
Create a welcoming environment. The classroom
should be a welcoming invitation to learn. Ensure that the area is
clean, orderly, and free of junk. If it is morning, the smell of
fresh coffee should embrace the trainees. Familiar music should
comfort their ears. The room should be alive with subject-related
items to touch. Visual stimuli that support key learning points
should adorn the walls.
Be a welcoming host. Personally welcome the
participants as they enter. Treat the trainees as you would a guest
entering your house. Greet them warmly. Thank them for coming. Take
their wraps. Find them a place to sit. Offer them snacks or
Acknowledge the class start time. At the scheduled
start time, acknowledge that the time is at hand. If you cannot
start immediately, explain the reason why and honor those who
showed up on time be providing them with something interesting to
do that rewards their timeliness. You could, for instance, use a
word search puzzle or a value-added video. In one leadership class,
I covered the participant tables with quotes from famous leaders. I
then invited the participants to select and post on the walls a
quote that they agreed with. The people who arrived early got to
decorate the room. In the process, they showcased learning points
critical to later discussion and provided a direct connection with
Introduce yourself. Begin the session by
introducing yourself, briefly, in 30 seconds or less. Do not offer
your life story. No one but your mother cares. The learners have
likely made up their minds about you already.
Introduce the reason for program. In less than 30
seconds, and in clear language, state the reason for the training.
Do not focus on objectives, just a general statement of why the
participants are there.
Begin a consensus-building activity. Do not start
with an icebreaker. Instead, begin a group activity free of
introduction gimmicks and directly related to the subject at hand.
Continuing our example of leadership development training, you
could give each table a pick-up-sticks style game. Then instruct
each participant group to complete the game using a different
leadership structure. One group might have a dictatorial style
leader who makes all the game move decisions. Another group may be
completely team driven, and still another might have two leaders
who make conflicting decisions.
Introduce the participants. Once the game has
begun, allow the natural flow of the material to help the
participants introduce themselves. This is easily done within each
team and can be expanded via reports to the larger group from each
Establish the learning need. Use the reports to
establish the need for the training. This is the spot where you
gain learner consensus through participant discussion. Your
activity, instead of being a get-to-know-each-other game, has
served a higher purpose, establishing a reason for the participants
to pay attention.
Introduce the objectives. With the reason for the
learning now clear and agreed upon, the participants will accept
your objectives as their own. Introduce the goals as a way to learn
what the participants suggested they needed in their debrief.
Proceed with your class. You can truly begin now,
assured that the ice has defrosted and, unlike the Titanic, you
will have avoided the iceberg in your path. Participants will be
ready with fully engaged, nonthreatened brains.