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Icebreakers to start a soft-skills session

I realize that the phrase “soft-skills” is not a favorite term for many trainers who teach these “essential skills.” For now, however, rather than focusing on semantics, I want to pass along some icebreakers that folks in our community have shared with me.

Imagining Success

To get people in the mindset to share ownership over making the learning event successful, I often do an ‘appreciative’ exercise.

Divide participants into groups of three or four and ask them to think about a peak experience of whatever the topic is (e.g. the best meeting you ever attended – or if that’s too hard, how about a reasonably successful meeting in the last month? / the most interesting presentation you remember / the most successful piece of writing you’ve done etc.).

Ask them to think about what made this so successful.

Get them to share the experience with the other members of the group and the group to come up with some of the elements of success.

Collect these “Elements of Success” on the flip chart. This exercise engages everyone and encourages positive attitudes. Posted by Melissa Biro

Speed Intros

I do a meet and greet version of speed dating. Have people pair up with someone they don’t know, then find a non-work or non-workshop connection with the person. 30 seconds per individual, 1 minute per pair. 3-5 minutes overall (meet 3-4 people). If people in the room know each other well, then they should find out something about that person they didn’t know before.

Find your Match

What has worked for me is to give each participant a slip of paper with information on it that is relevant to the topic or participants in general. They have to find the corresponding participant with the same information, introduce themselves, and talk briefly about what the information means to them.

Thiagi’s HELLO exercise

“Hello” is an opener that directly relates to the workshop process and content. It uses a deck of playing cards and a few other items.

The basic idea is that you prepare four questions related to individuals’ expectations, experience, questions and changes regarding the training.

Teams of players are charged with the task of collecting responses from everyone in the room in just a few minutes time. The exercise is high energy and lets participants meet one another, while remaining focused on the day’s agenda.  The exercise is described in full on Thiagi’s website: [email protected].

A Picture and a Few Words

I have a great collection of picture post cards, many of which have been sent to me by art galleries to advertising an opening and some that are recycled greeting/note cards.

I spread the postcards out on a table at the back of the room and having opened the workshop, introduced the topic and myself, and given participants a road-map for how the session will run, I invite them to go back and choose a card that represents “Where you struggle most when presenting your ideas to others/getting ideas from your team/engaging with hotel guests”… whatever the overriding subject of the workshop is.

I then go around the room and ask each person share their name and a brief description of their role (for my benefit, if they all work together) and tell us, in a couple of sentences, why they chose the card they did. I will take the card and move it round the group (almost always seated in a large U shape for my workshops) so that everyone can look at it while the speaker is sharing. I might echo their reasons or get clarification if I need it as I stick it up on the wall.

Once I have them all up there, I sometimes will facilitate a grouping of the cards, so that we can identify 4 or 5 common issues around the workshop subject.

The process has many benefits: 1. Needs assessment 2. Sharing of common challenges 3. Ability to share ‘through’ the picture choice, which allows for less personal exposure — not saying ‘I’m not good at xxx’ but rather ‘I chose this card because it represents times when I xxx” 4. Good storytelling tool… curiosity level of group is high when they see what cards others have chosen. 5. Allows me to observe how comfortable they are with public speaking and what sort of audience members they are when others are sharing 6. Facilitating the grouping of challenges helps the group to identify commonalities and helps us all identify what we need to work on during the session. Posted by Teresa Norton

Name Tents

We provide a name tent that is a full 8 1/2 x 11 paper. We ask attendees to introduce themselves in pictures. I might say “if you were going to tell us about yourself, draw what you would like us to know (family, hobbies, sports teams, favorite stores/brands, school, etc…).”

When they finish their pictures they explain what everything means to the participant next to them. The pairs then introduce the rest of the class to their new “friend.” Really helps to open them up on a first day in training with strangers. Posted by Krishna Clay


Frosty beginnings pay off for a great debrief

In a workshop about teaming, I decided at the start of the day not to introduce myself, and not let my delegates introduce each other either.  About 2 hours in, I found the answers to my group questions were getting shorter and shorter. All going to plan! Why? I wanted a frosty group, non trusting and not willing to respond, because they knew nothing about me, or each other!

I then allowed them (16) to ask me a questions each about any aspect of my life. Believe me, it got personal, but the mood of the room instantly changed. Laughter, positivity, all round behaviors changed once we all had had a laugh and knew more about each others lives.

It was a painful couple of hours, but the message about needing to know and understand each others background, beliefs, thoughts and motivations was certainly driven home. Posted online by Adrian Lowe

The 12-month project interview

I recently organised an icebreaker for a group of about 60 or 70 HR people and the feedback was really positive. We split into tables of 8 and it went like this:

“Imagine that we are commencing a 12-month, organisation-wide project. Success of the project depends on a diverse group of skills. You need to know how the skills of your colleagues will complement or support your own skill set.
You have two minutes per person to do three tasks:

  • Introduce yourself and your role to your table
  • Share a couple of your best strengths with your colleagues
  • Talk about the biggest focus of your role at the moment and how you are using your strengths in that work”

We decided to leave the conversation there as there was a related exercise later in the meeting to build in the learning of their colleague’s skills. Alternatively, you could ask them to follow on with identifying one person from their table that they would like to work with, based on their strengths and experience being different to their own. Of course, you could also then have two or three volunteers share who and why they’d work with to the wider group.  Posted online by Maria Harrison

Origami Cup

In this icebreaking / team building activity everyone makes a very simple origami cup (all you need is a piece of paper for each person, card stock. You make 3 or 4 simple folds to create the cup).

Everyone put their cups on a tray. You fill each cup up with water and talk about how we are all like these paper cups. If all the cups are strong then the group is strong. If a cup loses some of the water then in spills on to the other cups. Each person on the team is like these cups.

The better they “hold” their part of the work the less work that spills onto the team. You can then let the tray sit for about 5 or 10 minutes and then go back and look at the tray to see if the water is holding in each of the cups or if water has spilled into the tray. No matter the outcome people can have a visual representation of what it means to hold their part of the work together.

The other part to this activity, if you are trying to talk about the value of healthy, “well” employees would be to show how a stronger paper (card stock) can hold water better than a paper that is worn out or thin.Posted online by Lynette Reed


“Improv” Games

Matt Warzel likes to incorporate improvisational activities into his career coaching sessions. Here are some favorites:

Presentation Skills Game: IMPROV “EXPERT ANALYSIS”

Have a person stand up front and talk about whatever topics you shoot at them as if the’re an expert. Give them easy topics like “the new KFC Double Stacker,” “health benefits of carrots,” or anything else you or other audience members come up with.  Switch topics every 15 or 20 seconds, forcing the speaker  to switch gears right away. To prevent shyness, explain that each participant will speak a total of only 2 minutes on roughly 10 topics. 

After the presentations, you can identify and discuss effective strategies,  individuals’ natural instincts, identify their strengths and discuss opportunities for improvement. Identify behaviors like:

  • Hands in pockets
  • Grabbing one hand and then the other
  • Reserved or quiet voice that isn’t delivered with energy,
  • Shuffling feet (explain u need to walk with a purpose)
  • Over-blinking (can be distracting to the audience)
  • Hands on the hips too much (which can exude confidence but can also be too Superman pose like and a little defensive)
  • Etc.

Finding Common Ground: “10 FINGERS”

Have everyone stand in a circle and hold up 10 fingers.  Moving around the circle clockwise, ask each person to mention something about themselves (past or present experiences, personal characteristic, a badge of honor, religion, etc…). If others have this in common, they keep a finger up; if not, they put one finger down.  Keep going until last one is holding a finger.

Posted online by Matt Warzel, CPRW, CIR


Personal Shield of Honor

Explain to the group that they will be creating a “shield” out of a large sheet of paper. On their shield will be 4 quadrants containing the following images or icons representing the following information:

  •  Quadrant 1: What skills and abilities do you bring to the workplace
  • Quadrant 2: What skills and abilities do you need to improve upon in the workplace
  • Quadrant 3: What frustrates you about our workplace
  • Quadrant 4: What is a source of pride at your workplace

Remind the group that NO WORDS may be used on any of the shields…only doodles, symbols, icons, etc. After the groaning subsides, provide crayons as writing implements [or even magazines and scissors]. Put some music on while they take no longer than 10 min to create their shields.

Conclude the activity by giving everyone a chance to “present” their shields (1 min). If your group is big, break up presentation groups into sub groups of 6-8 or less.

Posted online by Jordan Chouljian

Non-Verbal Line-Up

Ask everyone to line up in the correct order without verbal communication in order of shoe size. If this goes well and only takes minimal time,  ask them to line up by birthdate, month and day only. You can control how much time this takes and if it becomes frustrating it’s a great lead in to the importance of communication and team work. Just by doing this exercise, you can see before you begin what type of team players they are and who stands out as a leader, followers, trouble shooters, etc.. This information is useful in engaging people about missions and goals.  Posted online by Maureen Dolson Mukka

 Discussing the Elephant in the Room

Here’s a great way to get people talking about “undiscussable issues,” a.k.a. “The Elephant in the Room.” Distribute blank cards or sticky notes to each participant.

  1. Have them write down the top three things the group needs to talk about and isn’t.
  2. Have the group post the notes up on the wall and ask them to roughly group them into like clusters
  3. Ask the group to put the issues on a continuum from the most discussable to the least discussable.
  4. Pick the three “most undiscussable” issues and have the team discuss them one at a time. Let the group pick which they will tackle first.

Posted online by Crispin Garden-Webster

 Your Ideal Life in Three Acts

Ask them to write the story of their ideal life as a 3-act play: past dreams achieved, present situation (the good and bad), and their ideal future. I often use that with executives over 40 who are in transition. It really gives them a positive perspective about the possibilities ahead. Posted online by Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA

Personal Brand Tagline

Have them write a personal-brand tagline as a tweet, only 140 characters to promote themselves. I often use this with 20-somethings, esp. students, and the results are as hilarious as they are creative. Posted online by Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA

Company Poem

Divide into groups of 3 to 4 participants. Give the group 15 minutes time for preparation. Have each group write a poem about their organization (six lines minimum). Their organization’s name must come at least once. Then have each group to come on stage to “perform” their poem. By this activities they feel that their stage fright has gone. Secondly, now they see their organization in new way. I found this activity very useful for all kind of participants. Posted online by Suresh Kumar

Stand-up Sit-down

Here’s a quickie. In under a minute, he gets folks up and out of their seats, generates a few laughs, refocuses their minds. It doesn’t take much!


On Linked-IN this month, Aditya Nugraha offered to share a collection of 300 Presentation and Icebreaker tips. Many people requested his notes and commented that they were happy to have them. Thank you to Aditya for allowing me to share them here:   Presentations_-300_plus_ideas.

1 thought on “Icebreakers to start a soft-skills session”

  1. Sirisha Madhav says:

    Loved all of these. I am going to use all of them in my training.

    Corporate Trainer

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