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 beverages.

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 participant opinions.

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 team.

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.