Reclaiming the Icebreaker: Encouraging Vulnerability in Group Settings

Three people wearing conference lanyards in conversation at a small table
  • Team Schusterman

March 28, 2019

  • Schusterman Fellowship
  • Leadership Development

Many of us are familiar with icebreakers, those get-to-know-you exercises that are meant to be “fun” but often make us cringe.

Still, it is important to help people form a connection before diving into the meat of a program. That is why we are excited to reclaim the icebreaker and ensure they best serve the people in the room.

Icebreakers can range in style from lighthearted to serious. Every year, for instance, the ROI Summit kicks off with a rousing group tournament of rock-paper-scissors.

While, arguably, any icebreaker is better than none, we at the Schusterman Family Foundation and Rockwood Leadership Institute are experimenting with ways to add purpose and depth to the icebreaker exercise.

We see thoughtful icebreakers as an effective tool for building trust and encouraging vulnerability in group settings—both of which are key to the success of our programs.

A recent evaluation of the Schusterman Fellowship and the Rockwood Leadership Institute shows that the more open and honest participants feel they can be during the course of the program, the greater the impact the program will have on participants.

We have also learned that building trust is a gradual process. Trust cannot be forced and often only emerges with the guidance of experienced facilitators who can gauge how far a group is ready to go. In our fellowship programs, we often start with broad, approachable exercises and then slowly move to prompts that require more reflection and vulnerability.

To that end, here are a few lessons we have learned along the way about how to use icebreakers to kick off a meaningful experience:

Set the tone.

Trust starts at the top. Program faculty should be willing to model vulnerability alongside participants. Try joining group discussions, address common concerns up front and show participants that it is okay to let their guards down.

Leverage the power of storytelling.

When it comes to breaking the ice, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal.

For instance, at their initial in-person gathering, new Schusterman Fellows share four photos that they feel represent their leadership progression and narrate their personal journey to their peers. Often, these photos illustrate profound moments of crisis, failure or loss, helping participants become more comfortable with each other—and with being vulnerable—right off the bat.

Get to the heart of the matter.

It is easy to reach for generic icebreaker questions. Instead, we encourage you to embrace the kinds of topics that will help participants to truly reflect on what matters to them.

In one activity, Schusterman Fellows take turns completing the sentence, “If you really knew me, you would know...” As the exercise progresses through multiple rounds, participants become more comfortable in their vulnerability and their responses become deeper and more meaningful.

One popular Rockwood icebreaker activity, called “Who are your people?” asks participants to describe qualities shared by the important people in their lives and those they gravitate toward both personally and professionally. Rather than asking participants to discuss their backgrounds point-blank (which would likely result in them outlining their résumés) this activity allows participants to bypass formality and tap into something much more personal.

It can be hard to get people to push past the small talk and get out of their comfort zone. But the right icebreakers can move people past their initial boundaries and help set the stage for a deeper experience.

Next time you are designing a gathering, we encourage you to reclaim the icebreaker and help your participants dive straight through the surface.

BONUS: Looking for more icebreaker ideas? Try breaking groups up into pairs or triads and share their responses to some of the following questions:

  • What is the story of your name?
  • Whose leadership has made a difference in your life?
  • What brings you joy?
  • What are your gifts?
  • What brings your life meaning?
  • Who were your ancestors and mentors? 
  • Who will you be the ancestor or mentor of? 

Learn more about how you can strengthen your programmatic offerings in the complete Leadership Development Guide. Download your free copy