Introduction to How Business Communication Icebreakers Work

Use icebreakers in an awkward meeting to get people talking. See more pictures of corporate life.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

We've all had to suck it up and play along at one point or another. Try as we might, we can't avoid it -- the office icebreaker. At many an awkward gathering, you'll find an excited leader who insists on an activity to break the ice between strangers. And sometimes, as much as many of us hate to admit it, icebreaker activities do give us an opportunity to meet and learn about our coworkers. Ironically, if nothing else, the shared anguish of the icebreaker experience fuels camaraderie.

Icebreakers are group activities or games intended to help people get acquainted. The group could be made up of total strangers, people who are only loosely acquainted or co-workers who don't naturally socialize (or possibly don't even get along). How do businesses use icebreakers to improve communications among employees?

One theory poses that icebreakers evolved from a psychology trend in the 1960s called the Human Potential Movement [source: Tennant]. Subscribers to this movement believe that people possess hidden talents and abilities that can be best drawn out and cultivated by organized group activities and interaction with others. One of the methods used to draw out someone's talents would be to encourage assertive behavior [source: Corsini]. Icebreaker games encourage participants to take initiative and instigate interaction with others in order to help the whole group integrate.

Despite the potential emotional discomfort of an icebreaker, many experts agree that icebreaker activities are extremely useful. Knowing good icebreaker techniques can help individuals learn how to comfortably start up conversations in day-to-day interactions as well as reduce stress, and, theoretically, increase productivity in an office. In the next few pages, we'll look at some tried and true icebreakers that work for adults in a variety of situations. Although they're loosely broken into categories, many of the games listed are versatile and can be used in several kinds of environments. We'll start with the most common icebreakers, those meant for a group of strangers, on the next page.

Business Icebreakers for Strangers

A simple icebreaker: Have people take turns introducing themselves.
A simple icebreaker: Have people take turns introducing themselves.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Ideally, the business icebreaker happens when a group of co-workers gather for the first time. Even if you aren't shy, it's usually stressful and intimidating to integrate into a new group of colleagues. And businesses often believe they have a vested interest in helping their employees to integrate and instill in them as sense of belonging. Not only will it help them work better together as a team, but it will lend employees a sense of loyalty to the company.

The following are icebreaker activities intended for groups of complete strangers:

  • "Taking turns": The simplest icebreaker of all is to have everyone take a turn introducing themselves. They can state their name, where they're from or some other interesting or relevant fact. To spice it up, ask them to talk about something entertaining, such as their most embarrassing experience in the workplace.
  • "Name game": As the title implies, this game is intended to help participants learn each others' names. Arrange everyone in a circle. Then start by asking one person to state his or her first name. The next person must state the previous person's name and then state his or her own. Going around the circle, each subsequent person must remember and state the names of everyone who went before. It gets more difficult as the game continues. To make it easier and more revealing, vary it by having each person attach a personal attribute to their name that starts with the same letter as their name. For instance, the names could be "Mischievous Mike" "Savvy Sarah" or "Jovial John."
  • "Interviews": Like "taking turns," this icebreaker is fairly simple and standard. Participants partner up with one other person and interview each other. To facilitate the interview, the leader offers suggestions on what questions to ask, such as "where are you from?" or "what was your favorite subject in school?" Afterwards, each participant introduces his or her partner to the group, mentioning something interesting he or she learned during the interview.
  • "Birthright": Separate the participants into four groups: youngest, middle, oldest and only children. After they have gathered, have each group write down some of the disadvantages and advantages of their particular birth order to share with the group [source: West]. For instance, the oldest children might say "I always got stuck with babysitting my little siblings," but that, "I was the first to get my own car." This exercise offers strangers a chance to quickly connect over shared experiences.

Next, we'll talk about what to do with a group of coworkers that already know each other but need a boost of camaraderie.

Communication Breakdown: Team Building Icebreakers

Team building icebreakers can raise camaraderie in an office.
Team building icebreakers can raise camaraderie in an office.
©iStockphoto /Jacob Wackerhausen

When among strangers, people who normally hate icebreakers will often agree to play along for the sake of politeness. However, after a group has worked together for a while and still hasn't naturally hit it off, it gets even harder to warm them up to each other. When people first start working together, there's a window of opportunity to easily become friendly. But as time passes and co-workers remain unfamiliar with each other, it gets exponentially more awkward. Worse still, a disagreement or misunderstanding could cause co-workers' relationship to freeze over -- as a result, business communication can break down.

To melt this thick ice and rebuild an atmosphere of teamwork, businesses need to apply the blowtorch of icebreakers. Use the following icebreakers for organizational communications that will bring teams together in an office:

  • "Trust walk": This is one of the most popular team building activities. To play, group people into pairs and have one of each pair put on a blindfold. The person without the blindfold will be the guide. Find a place with moderate obstacles (but nothing dangerous), and have the guides lead their partners from one side to the other. However, the guides must lead their partners only through talking to them -- they're not allowed to touch the other. The point is to build trust among co-workers and learn how to communicate to accomplish something.
  • "Pickpocket": This is a competitive game that can get people having fun and working together. Using a list of common items (such as a digital watch, receipt, lighter, breath mint, coupon, $5 bill) ask groups to come up with as many of the items as possible. The group that produces the most wins
  • "Human spider web": In this game, people gather in circles of about six or seven. Everyone takes his or her right hand and grabs the right hand of someone who is approximately opposite to them, and then does the same with left hands. When everyone's arms are intertwined, the group must figure out a way to untangle without letting go of any links. This activity helps participants exercise their team-building muscles and gets them thinking in a cooperative mindset.

An icebreaker can be relatively easy to pull off among co-workers in the average office, but what about when you're faced with energizing a large conference room or lecture hall full of icy business people?

Icebreakers for Meetings: Large Group Icebreakers

"The great shake" icebreaker teaches body language.
"The great shake" icebreaker teaches body language.

Large group icebreakers are arguably the hardest to pull off. Because many icebreakers can be time-consuming and simply boring, they prove unsuccessful. If everyone has a chance to speak to the whole group, by the end, no one will be able to keep anyone straight. The trick here is to keep it simple and fun.

Here are some effective kick-off icebreakers for large-group meetings:

  • "Autograph": In this game, the leader prepares a worksheet that includes about 10 to 20 criteria, such as "plays a musical instrument" or "has been to more than three foreign countries." Each participant gets a worksheet and must search the room for people who fill the criteria to sign the sheet. One catch is that no one can sign each sheet more than once. This gets people moving around and meeting dozens.
  • "Simon says": You probably remember this game from childhood. For adults, it's intended to get people pumped and focused. To play, tell the participants that a leader will be giving orders, but only follow an order if it starts with "Simon says." For example, the leader can say "Simon says raise your right arm," and the participants should obey. But if the leader says, "put it down," they should ignore this order. Anyone who mistakenly follows an order without a "Simon says" or who fails to follow a "Simon says" order is out. The faster the leader can bark orders, the more challenging the game gets. When the leader gives up, or there is only one person left, whoever remains is a winner.
  • "Great shake": This icebreaker is particularly effective for sales meetings because participants learn about body language. In it, the leader describes different kinds of handshakes to the group. Suggestions from expert Edie West include the vise (a firm, authoritative shake,) the pump (vigorous up and down motion), the topper (placing your left hand over the shake) and the flip (turning the shake so that your hand is on top). Have participants find a partner and try these different handshakes out, then discuss what each one conveys.

If you have a large group, you may want to break people up into small groups to do their own individual icebreakers. We'll learn about those small group icebreakers on the next page.

Icebreakers for Meetings: Small Group Icebreakers

A small group meeting of a dozen or so people is great opportunity to play icebreakers.
A small group meeting of a dozen or so people is great opportunity to play icebreakers.
Romilly Lockyer/Stone Collection/Getty Images

With a small group, participants have the opportunity to get to know each other well, without getting terribly bored or consuming too much time. Although small group icebreakers are easier to orchestrate than large group icebreakers, small group icebreakers still need to be done well to be effective.

­Here are some popular choices for small group icebreakers at large meetings:

  • "Two truths and a lie": This popular game enables participants to learn interesting things about each other, and it encourages conversation. Have each person come up with three statements about himself or herself. But instruct them that only two of these can be true statements; the other should be a lie. Each person tells the group these three statements, and the others guess which statement is not true. To spice it up, encourage the members to come with unexpected truths about themselves and be imaginative with the lie. One variation of this game is to have everyone submit these statements anonymously into a shoebox. That way, people must first guess whose statements are whose.
  • "M&M's game": Pass a bowl of M&M's around the group and instruct everyone to take as many as they like. Tell the participants that they will be able to eat them later, but not yet. After everyone has gotten a chance to reach into the bowl, tell them that for each piece they took, they need to tell the group something interesting about themselves. One variation on this game is to color code specific questions. For instance, for every red M&M, have them state one favorite movie, and for every blue M&M, one favorite food and so on.
  • "Celebrity": Prepare index cards with a different celebrity name on each one. Then, as people filter in to the meeting, tape an index card to each person's back without them seeing the name. Tell the participants that they must find out the celebrity name by asking each other only "yes" or "no" questions.
  • "Perfect match": This is a variation on the "celebrity" game. In addition to having people identify the name on their backs, they must find another person who represents the other half of their famous pair. For instance, you can use names like Romeo and Juliet or Bill and Hillary Clinton. The first pair to find each other wins.

Remember that many of these games can be used in multiple situations. "Interviews," for instance, can be a great icebreaker for strangers and for small groups. Use your best judgment and assess the atmosphere of the office or meeting to pinpoint the appropriate game. To raise the stakes, offer a prize to the winners of the games and tell the people ahead of time what they're competing for.

For more information on games and the art (and science) of communication, investigate the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Games for the Category: 'Ice Breakers.'" (May 22, 2008)
  • Corsini, Raymond J. "The Dictionary of Psychology." Psychology Press, 2002. (May 22, 2008)
  • Etington, Julius. "The Winning Trainer: Winning Ways to Involve People in Learning." Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001. (May 22, 2008)
  • Newstrom, John, Edward Scannell. "The Big Book of Team Building Games." McGraw-Hill Professional, 1998.
  • Tennant, Mark. "Psychology and Adult Learning." Routledge, 1997. (May 22, 2008)
  • West, Edie. "The Big Book of Icebreakers." McGraw-Hill, 1999: New York.