How to Facilitate Better Ice Breaker Questions

Photo by Nacho Canepa from Pexels Picture of an ship surrounded by ice and a penguin

I’m an introvert and I dislike ice breakers. Whenever I attend a meeting and the facilitator says “Let’s do an ice breaker” or “here is a warm up question,” I have to fight the urge to suddenly slink back or walk to the snack table.

Yet as a facilitator I often throw these questions into meetings or trainings I run because I know they work. I’ve also learned through trial and error and watching very skilled people run meetings there are better ways of asking ice breaker or warm-up questions.

Why have an opening question

Having an opening question for everyone to talk about is a good way to get everyone to participate. It sets the tone for the meeting/gathering and invites active participation from everyone, not just those who traditionally talk. My friend who is a high school teacher once told me students are often lectured to will tune out pretty quickly, the same happens with adults, so inviting people to participate right away helps to keep them engaged.

As a facilitator I try to build in ways for people to meet and connect with someone new at the meeting. When we met in-person (pre-COVID) I allowed people to choose their partner, although I instruct people to meet someone new (no sticking to people they already know). In Zoom life, I often use the breakout room function and allow Zoom to randomly assign people. I warn people they will be randomly assigned, but not to fear the conversation will be brief, about 3-mins. It is just enough time to meet someone else and think about the prompt, but not long enough that people will get squirrely if they don’t like each other.

I’ve learned from educators you should have a clear learning target or purpose. The purpose of an opening question is a) to engage all participants, b) level the power dynamics and demonstrate everyone can and should participate in ways that are comfortable, and c) break up cliques and encourage people to get to know others. All these have underlying racialized power dynamics in different ways. A good opening can help to shift some of the power dynamics and disrupt the societal norms that happen in groups (e.g. who speaks first, people congregating with people they know, etc).

Prompts and Opening Questions

I’ve been working on writing better prompts and questions so we don’t default to the same ones like “What do you plan to do this weekend?” or “What celebrity do most people say you look like?” These are ok questions, but they allow for superficial answers. I now believe a better opening question can help to frame the rest of the meeting and invite people to connect more deeply with the purpose and content.

A colleague told me she was at a meeting where the opening question was about weekend plans and most of the people there mentioned going skiing or taking a trip of some sort. Another person in the meeting mentioned the amount of privilege in the group they hadn’t even noticed until that moment. At another training I ran I used an opening prompt that touched upon relationships and justice. A participant noted she liked that question better than standard opening questions because it was a question everyone in their group could wrestle with and personalize. That story made me think about opening questions differently. A reflective opening question can do more than share out superficially.

A few weeks ago I was facilitating a meeting during the start of the trial in George Floyd’s murder. The group was primarily Asians who work in human services, government, and social justice organizations. The question I posed was something along the lines of “What does it mean to us as an Asian community to work towards justice with the Black community? What are the solidarities and relationships we need to build and nurture?” While the meeting wasn’t focused on building solidarities across communities I wanted to acknowledge the importance of the day and not to let the moment go by. I think it also invited people to reflect more deeply about our place in the POC community and to reflect more deeply.

Not a Single Identity

The stories we share are important to building relationships which is at the heart of racial equity work. A good warm up question invites people to share a piece of their core beliefs. The questions can move us beyond seeing people through a single identity, and with online meetings as a box on a screen. Coming up with a good question is like finding a good seed and facilitating the seed’s growth – giving it context, space – time, to grow a relationship between people.

I’ve tried to shift away from questions about what people are doing, to questions about howpeople are feeling and acting. Questions about what people do, such as “what are you doing this weekend?” or “where was the last place you visited?” don’t invite people to reflect. The answers can also expose class divides (as mentioned earlier) which can go against the overall value of creating relationships.

Some tips to writing better warm up questions:

  • Think about some of the values of your meeting and write a question pointing towards those values.
  • Link it to something happening in the community context. If there is something big happening in the news call that into the meeting – invite people to reflect on how it is impacting their lives.
  • Invite people to share a memory related to something you’re working on, it is a way of asking what motivates people to do the work.
  • Questions don’t always have to be downers or deep, questions about creativity and joy can spark new ways of thinking as a group.
  • Consider offering a buffet of questions. My friend Jondou often offers a series of three related questions to help people get started. Today I watched him facilitate and he said the questions were like a Taiwanese snack tray, you can take a little from each question, you won’t have enough time to get through all of them, but if you take what you need you’ll be full.
  • Remind people to talk about themselves and to share their own stories, not other people’s stories.
  • Be ok with people going way of script with the prompts. The idea is to get people thinking and getting to know someone else.
  • Slow down and give people time to reflect and share. If you have time in the large group invite a few people to share what they shared with their partner(s).

Thank you to our Patreon subscribers. At this time I don’t offer ‘extras’ or bonuses for Patreons. I blog after working a full-time job, volunteer and family commitments thus it is hard to find time to create more content. Whatever level you are comfortable giving helps to keep the blog ad-free, pay for back end cost, research cost, supporting other POC efforts, etc. If your financial situation changes please make this one of the first things you turn-off — you can still access the same content and when/if you are able to re-subscribe we’ll appreciate it.

Abby, Adrienne, Adrienne, AE, Agent001, Aimie, Alessandra P., Alessandra Z., Alexa, Aline, Alison F.P., Alison P., Allison K., Amanda, Amber, Amira, Amy H., Amy H.N., Amy K., Amy P., Andie, Andrea, Angelica, Angelina, Ann, Ashlee, Ashlie, Avery, Barb, Barrett, Becky, Brad, brian, Bridget, Brooke B., Brooke D.W., Cadence, Caitlin, Calandra, Callista, Cari, Carmen, Carol Ann, Carolyn, Carrie B., Carrie C., Carrie S., Caryn, Catherine L., Catherine S., Cedra, Celicia, Chelsea, Christina, Christine, Clara, Clark, Claudia, Claudia A., Courtney, Dan, Daniel, Danielle, Danya, Darcy, Darcy E., Deb, Denyse, Diana, Diane, Don, E., Ed, Edith B., Edith B. (2), Elizabeth, Emiko, emily, Erica J., Erica L., Erica R.B., Erin, Evan, Francis, Hannah, Hayden, Heather, Heidi, Heidi H., Heidi N and Laura P, Heidi S., Hilary, Hope, J., Jaime, Jake, JelenaJanet, Jason, Jean, Jeanne, Jen, Jena, Jenn, Jennet, Jennifer C., Jennifer M., Jennifer T., Jennifer W., Jessa, Jessica F., Jessica G., Jessica R., Jessie, Jillian, Jody, John, Jon G., Jon P., Jordan, Julia, June, Karen, Kari, Kate C., Kate G., Kate T., Kathryn, Katie B., Katie D., Katie O., Kawai, Keisha, Kelley, Kelli, Kellie H., Kellie M., Kelly, Kimberly, Kirsten, Krista D.B., Krista W., Kristen, Kumar, Kyla, Laura T., Laura G., Laurel, Lauren, Laurie B., Laurie K., Leah, Lindsay, Lisa C., Lisa P.W., Lisa S., Liz, Lori, Lori N., Lyn, Lynn, Maggie, Maka, Maki, Marc, Mareeha, Marge, Marilee, Mark, Marki, Mary, Matthew M., matthew w., Maura, McKenzie, Meghan, Melissa, Meredith, Michael, Michele, Michelle, Mickey, Migee, Mike, Milo, Mindy, Miranda, Misha, Molly, Myrna, Nancy, Nat, Natasha D., Natasha R., Norah, Norrie, Peggy, PMM, Polly, Porsche, Rachel G., Rachel S.R., Raquel, Raquel S., Rebecca O., Rebecca S., Risa, Rise, Ruby, Ruchika, Sarah B., Sarah K.B., Sarah K., Sarah L., Sarah O., Sarah S., Sarena, Sarita, Sean, SEJE Consulting, Shannon, Sharon, Shaun, Shawna, Shelby, Shelley, Skyler, Steph, Stephanie, Stephen, Su, Susan, Susan M., Susan U., Tallie, Tana, Tania DSC, Tania T.D., Tara, TerraCorps, Terri, Titilayo, Tracy, Tyler, virginia, Vivian, Will, Willow, yoko, Yvetteand Zan

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. Please subscribe, the sign-up box on the right sidebar (desktop version). To see what Erin is reading and recommended books check out the Fakequity Bookshop.

I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, my Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii, which is a small act of working to be in more just relations.