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Breaking Down Inhibitions

By Phil Bartle, PhD

Trainers' Reference

How to relax participants in a workshop

Any training workshop of one full day or more should have an "Ice Breaker" session of approximately 50 minutes, scheduled at the beginning of the workshop. What does an ice-breaker do?

The purposes of an ice-breaker are:
  1. to encourage all participants in breaking down and discarding status, prestige, authority, structured attitudes and behaviour habitually employed in day-to-day activities ("ice" here is slang for rigid formality);
  2. to encourage all participants to relax and enjoy themselves and each other as persons (not limited to roles or status holders) in preparation to becoming more open and open-minded towards the substantive training to follow;
  3. to encourage participants to interact with each other and get to know each other in non-orthodox and untraditional contexts;
  4. to soften up participants before they face the core material of the training; and
  5. to improve the training process of the overall training workshop by preparing the participants as above.

Many ice-breakers involve small group activities, including cutting out shapes, pasting, drawing, writing or acting out parts. Be creative, light and relevant in assigning tasks to groups of participants.

Some ice-breakers involve physical activities, such as the balloon race where pairs of contestants must each hold a balloon between them, without using their arms or hands, and move from a start line to a finish line in a race. It creates many laughs; and breaks ice.

Some ice-breakers require co-operation, where a small group is given an over all task where each individual must contribute different but complementary tasks. Others require negotiated cooperation between the small groups.

The "Sabotage" session, for example, is often used as an ice-breaker, and also helps us to see how we inadvertently sabotage each other in day to day activities. It can be played for 30-45 minutes. Participants who play the game learn to become more sensitive to how they interrupt their friends and colleagues.

Participants are divided into groups of three individuals each. Individuals in each group are labelled "A," "B" and "C." The facilitator gives a brief description of how the game is played, then calls everyone labelled "C" to herself/himself. Participants labelled "A" are told to be avid listeners and those labelled "B" are told to be enthusiastic in explaining to "A" about any self chosen topic or incident. All those labelled "C" are told to interrupt their "A" and "B" with a trivial topic of their own choice. The facilitator announces that all the groups of "A" and "B" should start. After about 60-90 seconds, the facilitator then tells those labelled "C" to each go over to their respective group and interrupt them with their trivial topic.

The facilitator stops the process about 60-90 seconds after the interruption. For further play, the roles can be rotated one or two times, time permitting. The facilitator then calls everyone to plenary for debriefing. Participants are then invited to tell about their responses and reactions. This is important for recognizing and defusing any residual resentments (this was only a game) and demonstrating how easy it is to sabotage or be sabotaged in our day-to-day work.

Ice breakers are valuable sessions for beginning training workshops, for many reasons. They can be – but do not have to be – enlightening like the "Sabotage" session in raising awareness about social interaction.

Simple games like the balloon race serve an important pedagogical service like breaking the "ice" of our day-to-day interactions and expectations about people, and allow us to take ourselves less seriously.

Training, especially training that involves awareness raising, is improved by prior "Ice-Breaker" sessions.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2011.07.25

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