The human brain is wired to make a snap judgement about meeting strangers. Within seven seconds, someone you meet will categorise you as friend or foe and interact with you accordingly. That’s all fine and good if you were living in a cave and hunting woolly mammoths or sabre tooth tigers, but in business, we consistently need to work with strangers — staff, customers and clients — effectively. This is especially important if we are forming new teams, projects or task forces, or engaging with others in meetings or professional development activities.
One tried and tested approach to quickly forging connections and conversations with strangers is the ice breaker — and asking ice breaker questions. Ice breaker means to literally “break the ice” between people and is a common term in business and education. Imagine smashing through ice, and you can see how the term came about.
Breaking the ice is an important part of the “getting to know you” leader’s or facilitator’s toolkit, and helps establish a congenial working and learning — or even job interview — environment. Ice breaker questions can be fun and light or serious and probing. It really does depend on the situation in which they are used, but what might seem like a simple technique should not have its power underestimated. A bit like Marvel’s Squirrel Girl.
Ice breakers can be awkward if the wrong questions are used with the wrong audience, so leaders, facilitators or educators should — if they can — find out about the participants ahead of time. If your meeting or workshop comprises mostly introverts, the attendees will probably be super awkward performing role plays or answering personal questions. They’ll be better suited to less revealing approaches and questions. Extroverts, on the other hand, will likely be quite comfortable answering personal questions and putting on a show. Just keep know your audience. Communication 101, people.
# Icebreaker questions for meetings
Meetings are the most likely situation where you’ll use ice breaker questions. Set aside 15-20 minutes if this is the first time people are meeting each other. If the meeting is a regular occurrence, 5-10 minutes at the start should be enough time for the warm up.
1. If you’ve traveled overseas, what’s the favorite place you’ve been?
If you haven’t traveled internationally, where would you like to go? People love to talk about travel, or their travel bucket list, so this is an easy conversation starter.
2. What was your first job? What did you like/dislike about it?
Everyone had a first job — they started somewhere, even if it was delivery newspapers or working at Maccas! This ice breaker will require your participants to take a trip down memory lane and encourage bonding through nostalgia.
3. What is the best business book you’ve read? Why did you like it?
Continuous learning should be encouraged, and this question will help update everyone’s reading list — and foster conversations during breaks. And you might be surprised to learn what is considered a “business book”!
4. What was the last documentary you watched? What did you learn?
Similar to the question about business books, this ice breaker question will answer the perennial question: what should I watch next on Netflix?
5. Why are you here today?
A direct icebreaker question that will help you as the facilitator or team leader ensure that your people are on the same page. This ice breaker question for work can be adapted for situations where everyone knows each other to something like: what are you expecting to achieve today? What outcomes are you anticipating? How can we best achieve this?
# Icebreaker questions for interviews
Interviews are tough gigs — for both the interviewer and interviewee. As an interviewer, you have around one hour to work out if the interview has the skills and experience you need and will “fit” with your team. As the interviewee, you have the same amount of time to find out more about the role — and if you want to work there. These ice breakers can be used for both parties.
6. What are the leadership qualities you most admire? Why?
This will give you an insight into personalities — and their ways of operating.
7. What learning have you undertaken recently? What learning opportunities are available in the role?
This ice breaker will give you an idea of how continuous learning is valued. A candidate who hasn’t learned anything since high school, and an organisation that provides no professional development should be avoided.
8. If money were no object, what would you do with your time?
This check in question will give you a solid idea of values, and what is viewed as important and drives the candidate — or interviewer!
9. Who is the one person you have empathy for at the moment, and why?
In a workplace, you want to avoid employing — or working with — someone who has a Cluster B personality because of the damage they cause. Lack of empathy is a red flag and a key indicator that you’re dealing with a sociopath, psychopath or narcissist.
10. Have you lived in another country? What were the highlights and lowlights? If you haven’t, would you consider it?
An expat actually has super powers that are highly desirable in an organisation because of their adaptability and problem-solving skills, and this ice breaker question will help you uncover who has those powers.
# Icebreaker questions for workshops
Workshops, seminars and professional development sessions are opportunities for fun ice breaker questions for work situations. Most people attend with a positive mindset, looking to network and learn something, so you can be a little more frivolous with your ice breakers.
11. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Just about everyone has uttered the words: if I had my time again… and this is an ice breaker that will have people nodding in agreement as they share insights.
12. What is the one thing that people would find surprising about you?
From an ability to speak Swahili to being a member of Illuminati to having eleven tattoos, this meeting icebreaker will be sure to get people talking.
13. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
They say that everyone wants to write their memoir, but what if that book was made into a movie? Would Brad Pitt or Cate Blanchett a la Benjamin Button be the best option, or would you go more art house like Mahershala Ali or Taraji P Henson?
14. Are you a dog or a cat person? Why?
They say that dogs have owners and cats have staff and this ice breaker will place people firmly in one camp or the other. Be prepared for good-natured arguments!
15. Would you describe yourself as an introvert of extrovert? Or a mixture of both?
The answers may surprise attendees — some people who seem loud and chatty are actually introverts. And some who are at the quieter end of the scale may be party animals!
# Icebreaker questions for new staff
Being the new kid on the block can be daunting, awkward and uncomfortable. Not only do you need to know where the best place is to get coffee, who the office gossip is and how the boss likes to communicate but also how to figure out the photocopier and time sheet system. Asking and answering ice breaker questions that are not just related to work will help.
16. What’s your signature karaoke song? Who doesn’t like belting out an eighties rock ballad or nineties rock anthem?
What this ice breaker will establish is useful information for Friday night drinks, and guarantee a laugh or two.
17. Are you a morning person?
Some people don’t function until they’ve had their first cup of coffee, others are Chatty Charlies from the moment they open their eyes in the morning — and it’s good to know who’s who for everyone’s sake.
18. What’s your favourite thing to do when you don’t have to do anything? Netflix and chill? Reading? Hiking? Helping a local charity? Walking the dog?
This ice breaker will help connect the newbie with common bonds.
19. What’s your favorite social media channel?
This icebreaker question will give you an idea of whether someone is an early adopter, in the early or late majority — and how comfortable they are with technology.
20. Which charity do you regularly donate to and why?
Not only will this tap into the empathy quotient of your new hire (or manager), but it will give you ideas for charities to support for your CSR program.
The next 10 questions aren’t really ice breakers specifically for work, but they’re guaranteed to get people talking. And isn’t that the point?
21. When do you plan to retire? What will you do?
22. Have you met anyone famous? Who, and how did it happen?
23. Who is the one person you admire and why?
24. Do you have a favourite quote? What is it and why do you like it?
25. If you could have one super power, what would it be and why?
26. Ninjas or pirates?
27. If you could go back to one period in your life, when would it be? Why?
28. What do you do if you can’t sleep?
29. What’s one of your favourite books? Why?
30. What’s your favourite movie or television series? Why?
31. Are you a breakfast eater or a breakfast skipper? Why?
32. Omnivore, carnivore or herbivore?
33. Mahjong, Monopoly or Cards Against Humanity?
34. Fridge or TV?
35. Would you rather read or watch a movie? Or neither?
Icebreakers are the perfect tool to start the process of connection, conversation and community building. Simply cherry pick the questions that work for you — you don’t have to stick to categories. Just enjoy the process of getting to know each other, and building trust.
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