Breaking the ice well

2017 marked the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 … Continue reading “Breaking the ice well”

2017 marked the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from their training, the Fellows will report back on the CSCCE blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Here, Fellows Allen Pope, Amber Budden, and Stefanie Butland and mentor Aidan Budd discuss facilitating interpersonal community interactions in person.

Photo credit: Wikimedia
Photo credit: Wikimedia

The purpose of icebreakers is to bring together a group of people (e.g., professionals, students, community members, etc.) and facilitate social cohesion for the purpose of having them start learning together, benefit from shared experiences, and collectively ‘produce’ during the course of the event. These introductory activities start building shared understanding within the group and allow the group to begin to work toward shared goals.

As CEFP Fellow Melissa Varga wrote: “It can be a little nerve-wracking to bring people together in person, but there are some tactics that can help people ‘break the ice.’ Icebreakers are a great way to help get everyone on the same page and get people chatting to one another. They can be silly, or they can be more structured and topically focused; the goal is to get people to introduce themselves and get comfortable.”

But, as a community manager, where do you start with implementing and designing an Icebreaker during an event?

  • Identify the goal of the event that is to be supported by the icebreaker activity.
  • Choose the right style icebreaker to match the size of your group, the familiarity (or lack thereof) within your group, and the type of “ice” you want the group to break.
  • If the icebreaker is new to you, make sure to do a dry run with a group of friendly colleagues to test the process.
  • Make sure to set aside the right time and space (physically and mentally) for a successful icebreaker.
  • Build buy-in from your group so that they fully participate.

But first, a caution: The Geek Feminism Wiki describes icebreakers as a “higher-risk activity” for conferences/events, in terms of making harassment more likely. This is because some events use icebreakers that involve physical contact, comedy, or putting people in situations that they find discomforting. It is important to take these issues into account when choosing, designing, and delivering an icebreaker, as has been done with the activities below.

A few of our favorites…

  • The “Human Barometer,” described in detail elsewhere – used as a method to enable every participant in medium-to-large groups (25-75 people) introduce themselves within one hour. This icebreaker provides an opportunity for participants to learn something about one another and sets community tone and perceptions.
    • Why we like it: The topics of the Human barometer can be tailored to seed discussions about the content of the event itself, which is exciting because it can be more appealing to participants who may not be accustomed to icebreakers. This icebreaker gets consistently superlative feedback! It gets people physically moving and engages every single member of the group.
  • Speed networking – used to facilitate brief (3ish minute suggested, but up to you) 1-on-1 conversations between group members. This builds individual links among a group that might not have any personal links yet.
    • Mechanics: Divide the group equally in two. Members of one group (A) form a single-file line, and all turn to face the same side of the line (perhaps with their backs against a wall to keep the activity a bit more contained). The other group (B) forms a parallel line to the first, such that each person in group B faces one person in group A. The organizer sounds a bell or other loud noise, and a set of 1-on-1 conversations take place between people standing opposite each other. After a given time period (3 or 4 minutes seems to work well), the (loud!) bell or alarm is sounded again, and the people in group B move along to face the next person to the right of them in group A (the right-most person in group B moves to form the left end of the row). In the case of an odd number of people, the left-over person forms the far right end of group B row, when it is their turn to stand in this position, that group B person gets a chance for a 3-4 minute pause from the action.
    • Location: Speed networking is very loud – as it involves many conversations happening simultaneously. It is best to do it somewhere this sound will be tolerated – otherwise you risk having lots of people in the host institution being frustrated and angry at you!
    • Why we like it: When it comes to giving people the chance to find out, very quickly, other people at an event that they would enjoy talking to in more detail, there are few better icebreakers. Within 3-4 minutes most people get an initial impression whether they want to spend more time talking with another person – and this icebreaker maximally parallelizes the process of having these initial get-to-know-each-other conversations
    • Variations
      • Conversation length: At the inaugural CEFP Curriculum Week, we tried speed-networking using conversations of length 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 minutes, and then voted on which conversation length we preferred – the favorites were 3 and 4 minutes, but some preferred longer discussions. We encourage you to explore what works best for your audience.
      • Circles: Rather than two lines, groups can be organized in two concentric circles – we prefer the “line” format as it takes up less space.
      • Virtual/online: Aidan has run this icebreaker twice using groups in two different locations (Germany and South Africa), using laptops to hold the conversations. We found that (not surprisingly) it is very important to have a good internet connection for this to work well. We would also, if doing it again, want to provide everyone, at both locations, with headsets to reduce ambient noise and interference. We also found that longer conversations were needed for participants to feel like they had had a worthwhile chance to get to know each other – probably because follow-up conversations were much less likely to happen given the different locations
  • Diversity GameSometimes the purpose of an icebreaker is to introduce the participants to the idea that everyone processes information and learns differently; that there is diversity in approach and that successful collaboration embraces and respects this diversity. Icebreakers that engage participants while at the same highlight different thinking styles are very valuable in this regard. One such activity, the Diversity Game, builds upon the Whole Brain® Thinking Model by Herrmann Solutions. Herrmann suggests that there are four patterns in terms of how the brain perceives and processes information; Analytical, Experimental, Relational and Practical.
  • Mechanics: In this icebreaker, participants need to be in a reasonably large space, facilitating movement and discussion. The deck of Diversity game cards is shuffled and each participant is given five cards from the deck. These cards have statements related to the four thinking types printed on them. For example, “RULE FOLLOWER: I like to follow step by step instructions to do things” (Practical); “RECEPTIVE: I am willing to receive help and ideas from others” (Relational); “CURIOUS: I am inquisitive and eager to find out new things” (Experimental); or “ANALYTICAL: I like to break things and ideas down into parts and then see how they fit together” (Analytical). Participants order the cards from the most like them to the least. Participants are then invited to trade cards with other members in the room in order to obtain a hand that they feel best represents them. This process can become quite loud as individuals barter for and trade their set of cards. After activity has slowed down, ask individuals to discard two cards, retaining the top three. You can then split the group into smaller groups based on the color of their cards for small group discussion, create random small groups or assign groups based on the people they are physically closest to at the end of the card trade process. You may find that like thinking types are clustered together.
  • Why we like it: This activity is multipurpose. It provides an opportunity for an individual to reflect on their own thinking style, be made aware of, and experience, difference thinking styles and enables participants to move around and start talking to one another.
  • Variations: For the small group discussion you can ask individuals to pick one of their three cards and give a personal example that exemplifies that thinking style. Other extensions include giving participants a list of statements that map against the four styles and asking them to identify their top 20. They then count up how many are within the Analytical, Experimental, Relational and Practical categories and map out their thinking preferences.

Join us next time for some thoughts on how to bring your community along with you during icebreaker activities and ensure they meet your overall community objectives.

Posted by Allen Pope, Executive Secretary of the International Arctic Science Committee; Amber Budden, Director for Community Engagement and Outreach at DataONE; Stefanie Butland, Community Manager at rOpenSci; and Aidan Budd, ELIXIR-UK Node Coordinator at the Earlham Institute.