Icebreakers Part 3: Building trust and creating a safe environment

Icebreakers can be important building blocks to successful group interactions. This article is part three in a series introducing the four general types of ice breakers.

This article is part three in a series introducing the four general types of ice breakers, which are: introduction, energizing, familiarize/build trust, and studying a topic.  This article will focus on the building trust type of icebreaker. 

As highlighted in part two of a series by Michigan State Extension, icebreakers can be important building blocks to a successful group interaction.  The facilitator has an opportunity to use an icebreaker to set the tone for a productive meeting.  These ice breaker activities can be used to build trust at the beginning of a meeting by familiarizing participants with each other, in the middle of a meeting to enhance group problem solving or team building skills, or at the end of a meeting to solidify the bond and relationships that have been established during productive team time.   

A trust-building type of icebreaker is used when bonding or building of relationships is required with a group of individuals.  Participants will find similarities, differences, empathy, and respect which will create team building for a productive trustworthy atmosphere.  Examples of trust building type icebreakers include:

  • Chairs in a Circle – This activity is similar to Musical Chairs or the PBS Kids Musical Hoops activity.  Create a circle of chairs and have participants sit in the chairs. Ask one participant to stand in the middle and remove their chair so there is one less chair than group participants. This can also be done by having the facilitator serve as a model and removing their chair. The person in the middle then shares something about themselves that others could potentially relate to. If the other participants agree with the remark or have experienced the same thing, they stand up and all standing (including the person in the middle) attempt to be seated in the remaining open chairs. The last person without a chair then becomes the next leader in the middle. Example sharing statements may include: “My name is Jan, I have a pet hedgehog” (all those with pet hedgehogs switch seats)…. “My name is Sara; I’ve been to the Mackinaw Island.” (all those who have been to Mackinaw Island switch seats), etc.. This often works well with a theme related to the topic, such as leadership (i.e. “My name is Jake and I’ve been the president of my 4-H club.”).

  • Common Ground – Divide the participants into small groups and have them discuss things they have in common, such as gender or eye color. They must also seek unusual things they have in common for example; being a twin or having an unusual pet, like a snake. Explain to participants they have 15 minutes to find as many common facts as they can. The team who comes up with the most items in common wins the game.

  • Tower of Trust - Divide participants into groups appropriate for the activity goals.  Give each group two newspaper sheets, one foot of tape, five paper clips, one foot of string and a pair of scissors. You could also modify this activity with 50-100 plastic cups or 10-25 pipe cleaners. Challenges can also be added, such as completing it with one hand or without speaking.  Give each group 15 minutes to build the tallest tower before measuring each tower to determine who built the tallest one. Ask the groups to describe their approach to building their tower, challenges they faced, and what they learned about working together as a trusting team.

  • Fear in a Hat – This activity builds empathy and can be performed when one feels a safe and trusting environment is in place.  The only supplies needed are a hat, pieces of paper and writing materials.  Ask each participant to write down their personal fears anonymously on the pieces of paper before placing them into a hat. Circulate the hat and have each participant take out a piece of paper. The participants in turn read the fear aloud to the group and explain how the person may feel. Reflective discussion can follow on how feeling empathetic and having common fears may build trust within a team.

Icebreakers are teaching, learning, and bonding tools.  Once familiarity and trust has been built with the group, a strong foundation has been established to support a safe and productive environment.  After a team has gone through these exercises, further discussion will be deeper and more meaningful, and project work can involve higher levels of trust and understanding. 

To enhance this skill development in youth, Michigan 4-H provides workshops and trainings for youth leadership with a section focused on icebreakers.  For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs contact your local County MSU Extension office.

Enjoy researching and implementing positive, trusting and fun icebreakers for your successful group interactions!

Other articles in the Icebreaker series: Part 1 – Introduction, Part 2 – Energizing and Part 4 – Studying a Topic.

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