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.

Youth standing next to a tower of balloons.
Youth doing Tower of Trust icebreaker activity. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension.

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 2 of a series by Michigan State University 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 icebreaker 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. When a group is struggling with a decision-making process, sometimes using a trust building icebreaker can help break through the stalemate. Keep in mind that some commonly used trust-building icebreakers for face-to-face meetings can be used virtually, with a little adaption.

The following are examples of trust-building type icebreakers.

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 hair 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. This icebreaker activity can also be completed in a virtual zoom environment utilizing breakout rooms.

Tower of trust

Divide participants into groups appropriate for the activity goals. Give each group two newspaper sheets, 1 foot of tape, five paper clips, 1 foot of string and a pair of scissors. You could also modify this activity with 50-100 paper 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.

Youth next to a tower of balloons.
Youth doing Tower of Trust icebreaker activity. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension.

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.

Which shoe best describes you?

This is a great virtual activity to get to know each other, current feelings, and can be a team building activity to strengthen relationships, while exercising empathy and active listening skills. Photographs of various shoes are shown on the screen like tennis shoes, slippers, high heel shoes, business shoes, hiking boots, sandals, etc. Participants are asked to choose which shoe best describes them and why. Answers can vary from described feelings like “I am sort of lazy and comfortable like a pair of fuzzy slippers” to “I consider myself adventurous and hardworking like a pair of hiking boots.”

In the virtual environment, this activity can be modified also by having participants take a photo of their footwear and share. Each person will discuss their choice of footwear and the story behind why they are wearing it. With young participants, you can even modify this activity with photos of animals, toys, etc. Sample answers received using animals on how youth felt on that particular day include:

  • Bunny – Hopping with joy, warm and fuzzy.
  • Tiger – Strong, fierce, brave and ready to take on the day.
  • Turtle – Slow, taking my time, relaxing and a little lazy.
  • Owl – Wise, flying high, smart and ready to learn.
  • Cat – Curious, cuddly, and feeling purrfect.
  • Dog – Loyal, excited, and tail wagging happy.
  • Mouse – Small, meek, and uncertain.
  • Horse – Strong, majestic, and ready to take on the day.

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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