Icebreaker questions: Why they matter and how to do them well

Whether it’s two truths and a lie, or being asked to state “an interesting fact about yourself”, there are some icebreakers that make your team die inside a little. 

In this post, we’re going to dig into some of the psychology behind icebreakers, and how to do social check-ins your team love. 

By the end of this article you’ll have learned:

  • What an icebreaker check-in is
  • Why having an icebreaker is important
  • How to use icebreakers to level-up your remote retrospective or in-person meeting


What is a social check-in or icebreaker?

A social check-in or icebreaker is an opportunity at the beginning of your retrospective to connect with each other by asking and answering a question. It’s really as simple as that. 

During a social check-in, the moderator will ask the whole group to answer a question. This should be something fun and engaging. The question should be something everyone can answer, and it shouldn’t leave anyone feeling exposed.

Having a regular social check-in is a bit different to the icebreaker you’re used to. 

In many seminars or workshops, icebreakers are used to help people form useful associations that aid memory. Instead of trying to remember a series of new names and faces, you can associate them with a third piece of human and relatable information. And those pieces of information are usually great conversation starters too. 

When teams already know each other and work together, social check-ins are like meeting-specific icebreakers that help set the tone of the meeting rather than getting you to remember everyone.

If you are running your retrospective with a broad range of stakeholders you can be more flexible and treat the check-in more like a traditional icebreaker. 

Screenshot of icebreaker question facilitated by Parabol app

Parabol's free online retrospective tool has built in icebreakers to engage your team

Instead of helping you remember the names of your colleagues (we sincerely hope that’s not a problem), social check-ins build team cohesion and awareness of your team-mates’ personal contexts.

Why social check-ins are important

A cold open might work great on a show like Saturday Night Live, but it’ll rarely be as effective in your meetings. That’s because humans are social creatures: we need to connect with each other and know we are safe before we can open up.

There are three reasons why social check-ins and icebreakers are important: 

  • Priming meeting participants
  • Building relationships 
  • Creating your team or organizational culture. 

Icebreakers help prime participants, build relationships and create team culture

Icebreakers prime meeting participants by letting them practice speaking and listening

Ever been in a meeting where the same three people always seem to be speaking? Sometimes it’s hard to even get a word in. Other times, you might feel that your contribution just isn’t worth the time. 

And when a few people dominate the conversation, it’s difficult for meeting leaders to get introverted team members to feel safe speaking up

Social check-ins are meant to mitigate those scenarios and ensure everyone is communicating and listening to each other. 

If you speak once in a meeting, you are statistically much more likely to speak again. Social check-ins are important because give everyone a chance to speak on an equal footing at the start of the meeting.

Icebreakers make sure everyone is included. Right from the start. 

Good icebreaker questions not only get everyone speaking, they also prime everyone to listen.  Introverted team members are empowered to speak, and extroverted team members are encouraged to listen.

When everyone listens to each other, meetings are more fruitful and people treat each others’ opinions with more respect. That’s because social check-ins help us recognize that everyone has something to contribute.  

An academic study has showed that ice-breaking at the start of a meeting or project has a positive impact on team interaction and skill acquisition. Teams that had carried out icebreakers had retained more information and performed better on individual exams at the end of the study.

Priming your team members in this way can help them work together smarter!

Social check-ins help build relationships by introducing other interests among the group 

A few years back I worked remotely with a colleague on a bunch of different projects. We spent a lot of time working together, and our working relationship was great. For all our work, I didn’t know much about him as a person. Our relationship was built on our shared interest in getting projects finished. 

I’m sure this is a pretty common scenario. Academics call this a ‘simplex’ relationship, consisting of one mutual point of interest. We just wanted to get the work done.

But having a regular social check-in can reveal aspects of your colleagues you would never know about. The more you know about your colleagues, the stronger your relationships become. Teams built on strong relationships are more open, more honest and more effective.

Psychological studies have shown that people actually want to have more than one reason for connecting to another person. So the more connections you can make, the stronger your relationships will be. 

These ties are what academics call ‘multiplex’ relationships. Multiplex relationships involve stronger bonds that can translate into closer working relationships.

simplex vs multiplex team relationships

Good icebreaker questions help everyone in the room feel valued as humans with diverse interests, not just workers who are there to do a job. And that has a huge impact on team performance.

Many teams have busy weeks, and usually there isn’t time to start asking people deep questions that reveal a different side of their personality. Social check-ins are a time set aside specifically to build those connections.

Social check-ins are important because they help you to:

  • Know your colleagues’ interests
  • Understand their values
  • Build emotional intelligence
  • Discover commonalities
  • Work better together

Over the course of history, humans have found many different ways to ice-break.

A study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that having an ice-breaker – specifically singing –  resulted in an endorphin release that helped the group to bond much more quickly compared to when there was no singing. 

We don’t get up to much singing at Parabol, but we do have a social check-in for all of our retrospectives and check-in meetings. And we’ve built that into our tool. We’re a fully remote team, so having an icebreaker is a really important way for us to build strong bonds despite being distributed around the world. 

Icebreakers are an effective way of building relationships because they force us to reveal a piece of ourselves. They make us momentarily vulnerable before others, which is how humans bond with each other and feel safe and accepted.

Icebreakers shape team culture as team members invest in one another regularly

Meetings are highly ritualized events. That’s why it’s important to build the right habits from the very beginning. Social check-ins should be part of your ritual because they help you to build a team culture. 

Teams with a shared culture have shared values, shared methods of doing things, and a shared understanding of each other. But building a culture requires investing in your team

Think about your team culture like a savings account. At the start of your retrospective every week, you invest a small amount of your time doing a social check-in. The more you regularly invest in social check-in and stack that time up, the more relationships within your team grow. 

A few months down the line, you recognize that the small amount of time you invested every week has helped you build a culture of active listening, open participation and shared purpose. Icebreakers inject some humanity into your team culture!

Overtime, icebreakers help build team culture

Once the social check-in becomes a part of your meeting ritual, you’ve started building a culture. The practice of ensuring everyone contributes, everyone listens, and everyone respects each other just becomes ‘the way we do things around here’.

American psychologist Bruce Tuckman wrote extensively on culture forming and the dynamics of small teams. In the mid-60s he came up with his four phases of group development: Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing

Making a small investment in social check-ins every week can help you fast-track through Tuckman’s stages of development. How?

Icebreakers are part of the ‘norming’ process because they are regular team rituals that quickly become norms. 

The turbulence of the ‘storming’ period, which Tuckman understood as a time of tension, can be smoothed-over by icebreakers. Icebreakers build a culture where people are encouraged to be open and honest, which prevents frustrations being expressed in a toxic way that can hurt feelings or damage relationships.

By sharing pieces of yourself every week, team members better understand your values and limits, which reduces harmful conflict. All of this leads you more quickly to Tuckman’s ‘performing’ stage, where teams can reach their potential. 

Running a social check-in is one of the best ways of ensuring continuous team improvement. All you need to do is invest a few minutes at the start of every meeting!

 

How to do better icebreakers

We’ve all answered icebreaker questions in the past, often reluctantly. But how can you make sure your social check-in is able to effectively prime your team, build relationships and form a culture? That may sound daunting, but we’ve got five tips to help you run social check-ins your team will love.

Better icebreakers let people express themselves, include the leaders, keep it simple and are fun

1. Choose icebreaker questions that allow for self-expression, don’t have a wrong answer and anyone can answer

Many icebreaker questions fail to get team buy-in and wind up in an awkward silence. That’s because not all questions are up for the task of breaking the ice.  

If you want your team to engage in the check-in, icebreaker questions need to capture their interest. The good news is that there’s a quick sense check you can do to check if your questions are good enough.

Before asking your icebreaker make sure that: 

  1. Everyone can answer it

  2. It allows for genuine self-expression

  3. It doesn’t have a right or wrong answer

Self-expression in social check-ins is vital because that’s what promotes human bonding. Self-expression also makes icebreakers fun and fosters connection that leads to team members feeling safe expressing concerns in the group. 

Because the goal of a social check-in is also to make everyone feel included, you don’t want to ask a question that has a right or wrong answer. Asking factual questions risks making people feel stupid or inadequate if they get the question wrong, which will negatively impact how much people contribute. 

Make sure to avoid asking yes/no questions. You’re not going to learn much about your colleagues if everyone is answering icebreakers with a simple yes or no. Instead, encourage your team to offer anecdotes or short explanations in their responses that provide more personal context. 

Be mindful of how personal questions are and what knowledge you assume team members have. Finally, if your question is so niche that only a few people can answer it, then only those few people will feel included, at the expense of others. If you’re going to ask niche questions, make sure everyone feels okay about admitting they don’t know what something is. You should also be mindful of asking questions that are too personal or invasive. Some people may feel uncomfortable bringing their personal lives into work, so start with less personal questions until you have some common ground already established.

Remember that your social check-in is meant to prime your team to contribute and be open. You don’t want to accidentally prime them to feel their opinion doesn’t matter or isn’t good enough. 

Good versus bad icebreakers

Example:

Good icebreaker question: What’s something new or interesting you’ve learned recently?

  • Allows for self-expression
  • It doesn’t have a right or wrong answer
  • Anyone can answer it
  • Encourages sharing of useful information
  • Helps build personal context

Bad icebreaker question: Who is your favorite mid-90s sports player?

  • There could be right and wrong answers
  • Not everyone may be able to answer it
  • Does not facilitate genuine self-expression
  • Does not build personal context


2. Answer your own icebreaker question first to create a safe space

It’s not just the question that matters, but how you ask it. 

As the meeting facilitator answer your own social check-in question. If the team is pretty new and not comfortable with one another, answer first to get the ball rolling. 

As a meeting facilitator your goal is to get everyone to open up and express themselves. And you’ll only be successful if everyone in the room feels safe. 

Psychological science tells us that making yourself vulnerable is a fast-track way of building trust and helping others open up. If you can answer an icebreaker first, you lead by example and create the safety net needed for others to answer honestly and openly. 

Your job is to create a relaxed and safe environment. But when you’re the one setting the icebreaker questions, there’s a fine line between openly asking a question and sounding like an interrogator. So you’ll want to be mindful of your tone as well!

 

3. Keep it simple to keep the conversation moving 

Something simple like an icebreaker can become very complicated, very quickly. Remember that icebreaker question ‘two truths and a lie’? It’s far too complex. 

Not only does it require every team member to come up with three pieces of information, but it encourages your team to develop value judgments about each other. Is Steve really the kind of guy who listens to heavy metal? Is Laura the type of person who rides horses?

Those kinds of judgements can offend your colleagues and damage team relationships. 

You want to make sure your social check-in is simple, fun, informative, and free of judgement! 

Keeping your icebreakers simple also helps you keep a hold on the time. You want to spend no more than 7-10 minutes on your check-in. With teams that are comfortable with one another, you'll find that people talk more, and stretch out the check-in round. With larger teams, each additional reply adds time. 

To keep the time with larger or more talkative teams, ask questions that participants can answer with one word or expand if they choose. 

Simple icebreaker questions for large or talkative teams: 
  • If you could travel anywhere, what country would you go to? 
  • What animal best describes your mood today? 
  • If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?
  • What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
  • Which colour sums up your feelings today?

It can be easy to run over when you’re having fun getting to know each other, but keeping your question simple should keep you on time. 

It’s also about simply getting everyone to say something. Think of icebreakers a bit like a Rorschach test. Your colleagues don’t need to rack their brains deciding “is my mood more aardvark or axolotl today”? They just need to say something. Anything. 

Good icebreakers can be answered without demanding cognitive strain. The purpose of an icebreaker is to warm everyone up, not burn everyone out. After all, you want to save your team’s brain power for the central questions and challenges you’re tackling.  

If someone in your team seems nervous about answering the question, you can always come back to them at the end of the round. They might feel more confident after hearing everyone else’s answers.


4. Have fun so you can build better relationships and a stronger culture

The best social check-ins are fun. Above all, they’re a time for you to come together with your team and bond. This time is especially sacred if you’re working remotely or running a fully distributed team

You can make sure your icebreakers are fun by thinking about:

  • Setting a positive tone from the very start
  • Letting team members submit their own check-in questions
  • Asking your team for feedback on the process

The positive benefits of social check-ins should extend beyond the context of the meeting. You want social check-ins to help your team members connect with each other outside the meeting and build complex relationships built on points of common interest. 

Building a team culture isn’t just about finding your groove. It’s also about building cultural and social reference points that help you gel with each other. Whether it’s some kind of in-joke, nicknames, or analogies based on books, movies, or other icebreaker answers! All of these things make people feel they are part of something meaningful and fun that they have helped to create. 

When we’re having fun we’re more expressive and more open. Our conversation flows more naturally and we enjoy our time with each other. 

Life’s too short for more boring meetings, so make sure to have some fun in your social check-in!

 

Conclusion

You’re ready to start investing in your team relationships and culture! 

Let’s quickly recap all the key points we discussed. 

Social icebreakers are a time for you to connect personally with your team members before you start your meeting. 

They’re important because they help you prime everyone to contribute and listen, they help you and your team build strong ‘multiplex’ relationships with each other, and investing in social check-ins helps you build a team or company culture. 

To run great check-ins for your retrospectives, you’ll want to choose great questions that everyone can answer. You’ll want to make sure you’re leading by example, answering your question first to create a safe space. You’ll want to keep your icebreakers short and simple. You’ll want to encourage thoughtful self-expression to questions so people really get to know each other better. And finally, you want to have fun, because people open up and build better relationships when they’re having a good time!

Now you should be able to:

  • Explain what a social check in is
  • Identify good and bad icebreakers
  • Know how to create a great icebreaker questions
  • Understand why social check-ins are important
  • Run a great social check-in to get your team working together better

How icebreakers help teambuilding

Remember that social check-ins are an investment in your team. A few minutes of investment in every meeting can deliver dividends in team synergy, efficiency and culture, for years. 

Cultures aren’t built through mission statements, internal policies, or abstract leadership ideas, but by the everyday actions of people in your organisation. 

So, let’s get to it! Time to run some great social check-ins! 

Got some great icebreaker questions?

Let us know by sending a note to: love@parabol.co

Gareth Davies

Gareth Davies spends his time helping people and organisations around the world communicate better. He's a passionate advocate of remote work and responsible leadership.

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