Sample Icebreakers
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Sample Icebreakers

The goal of the icebreaker is twofold:

  1. To help participants ease into the difficult act of talking with strangers by answering fun questions about themselves, their experiences, values, and tastes.
  2. To give them a chance to meet and connect with other participants first as people, not representatives of a certain position or a rival group - people who, in fact, may share some values, experiences, hobbies, favorite activities or identities with themselves.

Here are two sample icebreakers that we use that do that useful work reliably well.

1. What's in a Name?

Tell us a story about your name. First name, last name, middle name, nickname ... doesn't matter. Just tell us about what one of your names means to you, or to people close to you.

2. Multiple Identities

This aims to ground each participant in the richness of their own identities, so that they don't see themselves as the advocate of just one issue or the defender of just one identity. They learn about the richness of identities for their fellow participants as well.

Read the prompt to students, then give people 4-5 minutes to craft their list. Then ask each student to turn to a person next to them (preferably someone they don't know well) and spend 6 minutes sharing their lists one-on-one. Urge students to listen carefully.

Here's the prompt:

Think about the various identities you hold. Which are the most important to your sense of who you are? A bit further down the priority list, which likes, dislikes, habits, or hobbies are part of what makes you “you,” particularly in the eyes of others?

Here are sample lists from the folks who lead Can We Talk?, Chris Satullo, Harris Sokoloff: 

Chris: Husband, father, and Pop-Pop; Christian, journalist, civic dialogue guy, Philadelphian, mentor, Cleveland sports fan (i.e., lifetime of suffering), hybrid driver, bad golfer, mystery reader, Apple+ binger.

Harris: Father, grandfather, teacher, learner, Jewish, public deliberation activist, patriot, philosopher, carless man, walker, bike rider, bearded, would-be violin player, cook, gardener.

When each pair is through, the moderator will ask, "How did it go? Can anyone share something interesting or surprising you learned about your partner - or yourself?"; This gives everyone a sense of the variety of identities and experiences present in the room.

This ice-breaker takes 10 minutes or more, so use it only when you have enough time. It's a great first-day-of-class exercise.