Icebreakers are Great for Trust … But You’re Doing It Wrong

May 9, 2023

Connection before content is essential for building trust, but too often, icebreakers are done wrong. In this article, I’ll share three examples—one from business, one from education, and one from a non-profit context—where I’ve seen people lead connection before content that works really well.

The Purpose of Connection Before Content

Unlike typical icebreakers, connection before content connects to the purpose of why you’re actually there. It’s not just a “before-the-meeting” thing but an essential part of the meeting that makes it more productive. When you weave in a culture of connection before content, it can actually reduce the amount of time you spend in meetings on a week-to-week basis.

There’s a decade worth of educational psychology research that points toward the fact that when we are connected and related to each other, it creates all sorts of communication shortcuts and builds trust. However, you can’t build that relationship of trust just in a one-day off-site or by doing a multitude of icebreakers. The way to build it and increase psychological safety is by weaving connection before content through the fabric of your organization, your meeting structure, your cadence, your norms, and your systems.

Examples of Connection Before Content

Group Warm-up Activity for Business Context: Goldmine of Goodness

In a business context, I was working with 200 senior leaders at State Farm Insurance. The intention of our gathering was to share best leadership practices across the organization. I facilitated a connection before content exercise called “Goldmine of Goodness,” a collaborative journaling exercise. For two minutes, participants typed their response to a prompt that would be a goldmine of goodness for someone else to read. Then, everyone hit enter simultaneously, and for three minutes, the group read each other’s responses. This exercise created a moment of connection before content that was valuable to the group, and even those who typically dislike icebreakers engaged enthusiastically.

Engaging Exercise in an Education Context: Alphabet Equations

In an education context, I learned about alphabet equations from Mark Collard, creator of Alphabet equations are puzzles like “L of the A equals 26,” which stands for “26 letters of the alphabet.” I heard of a math teacher who used these equations as an icebreaker by printing them out and challenging students to work together to solve them. This activity created connection before content while also warming up students’ brains for math class.

Clever Connection Strategy for a Non-Profit Context: Following Your Natural Curiosity

In a non-profit context, I used to work with World in Conversation, where I facilitated 90-minute dialogues on sensitive topics with groups of strangers. To create connection before content, we trained facilitators to pay attention to what people were wearing, carrying, or presenting and ask a question rooted in their own natural curiosity. This approach focuses on who somebody is and creates the option for them to be authentic, which builds trust and connection before content.

What Can You Do Now?

If you liked these examples, you would also love some of the tools I’ve created to facilitate connection before content. The We! Connect Cards and We! Engage Cards are decks designed to create conversations that matter and engage groups in meaningful activities. I created these tools with one mission in mind: to make icebreakers that don’t suck. I’m Chad Littlefield, and I hope you have an awesome day implementing connection before content in your organization.