I was working on a client-discovery guide this morning and typed the word “icebreaking” then stopped to reflect on the derivation of this term.

Luckily Google was up and with one click I discovered that the term has been around in similar usage for several hundred years. To paraphrase, it started as far back as 1579 as a term meaning loosely, “to forge a new path for others to follow” based on the idea that your ship was cutting through literal ice for other ships to follow. In the way words and phrases do, by 1678, it had begun to be applied in another way, meaning “to break silence/ice in socially awkward situations.” It took the modern form of “icebreaker” after ships with reinforced hulls and dedicated purpose of breaking ant/arctic ice were developed in the late 1800s, and the off-label use of the word also continued to develop, now not being applied merely in socially awkward situations, but also when one was merely getting acquainted with new people – and then goes on to give an example from Mark Twain that directly correlates to the situation in which I was using it, except that, being Mark Twain, apparently the icebreaker in use was a flood of some sort. (I love Mark Twain.)

What got me thinking about this was another way that we could look at the usage: in the context of Kurt Lewin’s model of change:

Frozen > Unfrozen > Re-Freezing

Frozen being a static system, where you know what to expect and what will happen, and are stable. Unfrozen being a state where things break up and vulnerable to influence by change. Re-Freezing being the new state that forms once change has been integrated into the system.

If we think about it this way, then the purpose of an icebreaker is to disrupt what the participants are thinking, thereby leaving them vulnerable to new ideas about each other and about any other new ideas you may want to toss into the mix.

So, if you are planning an icebreaker for a meeting, think about where the participants are coming from – other meetings, the subway, the salesfloor – and what kind of baggage they have brought with them: maybe they didn’t want to be here; they have so much to do; they don’t like speaking up in meetings; their mind is occupied with some thorny, unrelated problem; they saw the topic of the meeting and came in with pre-formed answers; etc.

Use your icebreaker to capture their attention, to shake them up, to say, “This meeting is not what you assumed it would be and you need to be here, be present, right now.” When teaching a new team member how to prepare a facilitator’s guide for a meeting, I used to say, “They’re going 100MPH full-bore in that direction [their daily chaos]; your opening needs to reach out, bring them to a screeching halt, and tell them that they need to take a sharp right turn and go 100MPH in this other direction instead.”

If, as I was doing this morning, you are conducting a discovery call with a potential new client, the icebreaker is slightly different but just as important. In this case, the person you’re speaking to has probably done a dozen of these calls, if not on this project, on others, and think s/he knows how the call is going to go. They will be holding you at arms’ length and they will just want to give you the minimum information possible and get off the phone. The purpose of your icebreaker is to get past that arm and to get them to relate to you as a human being, to open up their minds to the information that you want to share with them, and to the possibility that they will share information with you.

So that’s my quick thought on icebreakers. And it gives me an opportunity to use yet another photo from the best vacation ever.

You’re welcome.

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