Breaking the ice well, part 2

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 … Continue reading “Breaking the ice well, part 2”

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: Jaymantri,
Photo credit: Jaymantri,

As we discussed last time, 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.

You’ve chosen an activity or two that suits your community and your specific situation – now what?

Bringing your community with you

A crucial part of any Icebreaker activity is getting buy-in from the group you’re working with – without it, you’re failing before you start. But what do we mean by “buy-in”? For example:

  • Basic: Approval to put an icebreaker on a meeting schedule/agenda.
  • Moderate: Depending on what you want to try, support and encouragement to be innovative or experimental.
  • Full: Engagement and enthusiasm from your meeting attendees. It takes investment on participants’ behalf to do more than just go through the motions!

Some people see themselves as “icebreaker people” and some don’t. Regardless of where you or your community fall on that spectrum, icebreakers can serve important roles (as we discussed above). CEFP Fellow Jen Davidson points out that: “The key is to find a balance between structure, which provides safety, and disrupted expectations and routines, which allows for new ideas to emerge and for authentic relationships to develop.” So why might you, as community manager, get pushback on implementing icebreaker activities?

  • Not understanding the utility of an icebreaker: Some communities aren’t used to having icebreakers. Or the leadership might see themselves as sufficiently “icebroken” because the senior members of the community are fairly tightly-knit. Or the agenda is too packed with “business” items. In any of these situations, it might be hard to make an icebreaker happen because the necessity for opening lines of communication, making connections, and finding common ground isn’t there. In this situation, it is important to build a strong case for the type of activity that is needed and articulate how it will work to achieve a defined purpose.
  • Not “feeling” it: Icebreakers sound informal and they often are. As such, icebreakers often feel at odds with the tone of a more formal meeting. Those very same formal meetings, however, would often benefit from breaking people away from their laptops and talking points and encouraging them to connect at a human level! Icebreakers can help make more meaningful conversations happen. Even if it is not possible to integrate an icebreaker into the formal agenda, perhaps it might be possible to organize some sort of pre-event to work towards the same aim.
  • Not having enough social capital: Icebreakers, by their nature, ask a level of vulnerability from participants. Activities can be designed to minimize this or work up to higher levels of openness, but the central concept is there. So, if you’re new to a community or just new to some other members of the community, you might not have enough social capital or reputation to ask people to make themselves vulnerable. Starting off too big can set you two steps back, so make sure to think about possible reactions when planning big changes to how your community members connect with each other. Recognize this, and you can work to earn trust by enlisting the support of trusted community members to serve as advocates.

Execute the icebreaker cleanly

  • What are we doing? In new activities (like icebreakers), and in large groups, people can often tend to shrink back or take up a herd mentality. Running an icebreaker, you will need to be very clear about what you want people to do. It pays off to think about the exact choreography and even a script for the event rather than winging it – it will reduce confusion and improve your group’s experience! Make very clear what the “ask” of the group is or they will spend more time asking each other what they should be doing rather than the icebreaker activity itself.
  • Language: Icebreakers can be loud and confusing. Clarity is key. In international groups, translation might be important – make sure to take this into account in your planning!
  • Tangible Outcomes: A goal of some icebreakers (particularly in groups that may already be somewhat familiar with each other) is to produce some tangible outcomes – make sure to give this both the time and the documentation it deserves so that it can contribute to later stages of your event.
  • Your Role as Community Manager: It is worth noting that a community manager’s role in facilitating/capturing the icebreaker can remove them from the benefits of participating in the activity. This is neither bad nor good necessarily, but important to keep in mind for meeting dynamics and staffing.

A few last thoughts…

Done well, icebreakers can be used to signal the interactive nature of a workshop and engage a possibly hesitant crowd. They can kickstart a community event and set your group up for real success. Icebreakers might not necessarily take up a lot of time, but they can be a memorable and pivotal part of a community event. We hope these tools set you up to start thinking about and implementing your own icebreaker. Go forth and break the ice!

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.