As some of you may know, July marks the six month anniversary of the release of my first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs. To honor the occasion, I’m taking some time to highlight certain issues that the nature of our work may present for introverts. Today’s topic: icebreakers.

Few words curdle the blood and raise the anxiety level of most people (introverts and extroverts alike, by the way!) more than “Let’s get to know one another!” Add the setting of standing in a circle, and it can be a downright loathsome enterprise. As professional guardians of an experience for our students and colleagues, getting to know one another is beneficial, even essential. And many of us are aware that introverts don’t function well in these sorts of environments when they are welcomed in this manner. So why do we persist? And why are most attempts so cringeworthy?

I won’t speak for everyone on this, but I will attempt to articulate some of the introvert challenges to this method of introduction. An icebreaker, or organized team building activity designed to share information, combines two elements that introverts struggle with: small talk and forced performance. By struggle, I don’t mean there are problems completing the task at hand- that is an issue associated with shyness (an altogether different issue). I instead mean that small talk and forced performance aren’t the best way for introverts to express themselves, and activities designed in this manner will not yield the best portrayal of these individuals.

In my research for the book, Laurie Helgoe (author of Introvert Power) phrased it best when she said that introverts aren’t incapable of small talk, but they are very aware that it minimizes them. The longer neural pathways of introverts, combined with a natural inclination toward focus and “deep dives” into information mean that cursory conversations are fundamentally uninteresting. And we all know what happens when you try to engage a student or colleague in something that doesn’t interest them.

Similarly, Susan Cain (author of the popular book on introversion, Quiet) has characterized “forced performance,” or situations that invite unspoken competition for the best, quickest, or most profound answer, as an additional scenario that minimizes introverts. Introverts do well when given the opportunity to contemplate responses to questions, answering more meaningfully when their input is not required quickly. As a result, there can be a tradeoff in quality when time constraints ARE enforced.

Think about some of the icebreakers that you facilitate for students. I know I’ve been forced to think of some of mine. Quick trivia-based responses like favorite color, ice cream flavor, or TV show interest introverts little because they tell you very little about the people around you. And by asking a student to share a “fun” or “interesting” fact becomes an act of performance, where the value of their answer is ultimately, if unintentionally, judged against the answers given by the rest of the group. I want to stress, introverts are not incapable of functioning in such environments. However, they do little to garner their trust or engagement, and may hurt their performance down the road if they are brought into the fold in this manner.

So the real question is, what’s the alternative?

I am not prepared to say that I can fix the icebreaker problem. There’s some very serious money and fame to be awarded to the person who does fix it. But what I can do is offer some suggestions for how to strengthen your introductory experiences to account for the natural inclinations of introverts without taking extroverts out of the fold (never my goal, but I always want to say so just in case!).

Encourage storytelling. There’s a lot of talk about the power of storytelling, and I’ve said previously that it can be a far better way to get to know people than any typology battery you could ever put them through. And for those who conflate the constructs of shyness and introversion, it could seem counterintuitive to have introverts tell stories. But here’s why it works: introverts know themselves well. Very, very, very well. An inward orientation will do that to a person. Creating opportunities to share things that they are intimately connected to will reveal the best version of them in a way that the surface sharing that small talk invites, simply doesn’t.

Rather than asking, “What’s your favorite TV show?”, consider asking “What rituals do you have while watching your favorite TV show? Do you watch with friends? Do you turn off your phone? What creates the best environment?” Similarly, rather than asking “What’s your favorite food?”, instead ask the best meal they’ve ever had- where it was, who made it, if they’ve ever tried to recreate it. Will it take more time? Probably, yeah. But will you get a better payoff in the long run by creating a more inviting space for everyone? Probably, yeah.

Focus questions inward. Many don’t realize it, but asking team members or students to share “an interesting fact” about themselves creates innate competition. In that moment, anxiety starts to build- not over sharing itself, at least not always, but about how the provided answer will be perceived by the group. Am I interesting? Will this fact seem stupid? It’s not nearly as cool as [insert other person]’s… This construct of adding the burden of performance is damaging to all who are in a new space with new people, but can be especially damaging to introverts, who are neurologically wired to ruminate over such experiences longer than their extroverted counterparts.

By focusing questions inward, and allowing introverts to share their experience without concerning oneself with their answer in relation to others, you stand to get a more confident, less guarded response.

Instead of prompting participants to “share a fun fact about yourself,” consider asking them the last thing they saw or read that made them laugh out loud. Or consider replacing “What’s something interesting about you?” with “What was the last new or surprising thing you learned?” The answers to these questions are dependent on the experience of the person sharing, not the perception of the group to the shared experience. And that lack of focus on judgment could bring the introverts of the group out of their shells while keeping extroverts in an area of comfort. This process, a goal in creating a welcoming environment for all, minimizes neither group.

What other tips do you have for breaking the ice with introverts? Did I miss anything? Let me know! And if you want a copy of THE I’S HAVE IT, head here and get yours!


7 thoughts on “Mythbusters: Breaking Ice with Introverts

  1. YES YES YES Amma!!! I can’t even tell you how much anxiety has come from the more traditional icebreakers that I’ve been “forced” to learn. One of my favorites is the “new name game” (that’s what I call it). Ask students to share a part of their name, first, middle, last, or anything and where the origin of their name came from. This is something that everyone can share, even if it’s that they don’t know the origin of their name, and give the reasons why. I always find pair sharing icebreakers to be preferable as well before bringing it back to the group.

  2. All of this, yes…just yes. I’m especially thinking about this in context of student staff selection time, such as Group Process. Candidates are often remembered for their “fun fact” or favorite food because it was “interesting” instead of potential for excellence on the job. Killin’ it once again, Amma!

  3. Krista,
    That’s one of my favorites too! I find that if you can engage people in stories that they’re comfortable with, they appreciate it- no matter who they are 🙂

  4. Thanks, Marci! And yes, one benefit of doing more involved icebreakers is the ability to see how candidates think and make meaning. And while I’d love a staff of people who like the same cereal as me, I’d rather have the other thing 🙂

  5. I actually have to disagree to a point. I LOATHE icebreakers, but I’d rather have to deal with the surface-level “favorites” and “fun facts” than have to have a deeper conversation with some random stranger. The questions you posed in your last paragraph would have me in a panic to remember something in a short amount of time AND be able to articulate that in a way that was at least succinct if not interesting to those around me. I have my standard answers ready to go for anytime an icebreaker comes up–and can discuss those answers more in-depth should the need arise.

    I like Krista’s Name Game because is relieves some of the pressure that the more traditional games can create, yet allows me to remain safely on the surface until I feel I know someone well enough to engage them on a deeper level. I DO think we need better icebreakers, but meaning-making shouldn’t come at the price of comfort.

  6. Jessi, that last sentence says a lot. Meaning making shouldn’t come at the price of comfort. I’m glad that you mentioned that- the kinds of deep dives that we’re prone to taking can’t comfortably be taken unless we can see the bottom; murky waters don’t make anyone comfortable. Thanks for making that point- this is far from the last thing I’ll say on the matter, and future iterations will absolutely include that caveat 🙂

  7. The simplest definition of introversion that the general public has in mind is to remain silent and to be isolated. This definition usually has negative connotation. you may have seen parents who sometimes even apologize to other for their child’s introversion for example, their child did not greet them in time or did not answer a question asked by a relative. Breaking the ice is probably the best idea and people can consciously communicate with introverts. Introversion means that one’s attention, interests, and concerns are focused one’s feeling, thoughts, and inner world so you have to enter the inner world of it addictively.

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