Think Wrong Graphic

Three non-icebreakers to start a productive meeting

Everyone cringes when they hear the word icebreaker. It feels cold and forced. The word triggers this sense of fake fun or something akin to a trust fall. But, let’s face it, starting a meeting is awkward. I facilitate a lot of client calls. Which means I am responsible for warming the room up or “breaking the ice.” For years, I have been on a mission to start a meeting that builds trust and doesn’t feel forced. And doesn’t make anyone cringe (well, most people). 

I recently completed that mission. While attending a Think Wrong Facilitator’s Intensive, I discovered new ways to have productive and safe collaborative working spaces. Think Wrong is a problem-solving system that challenges the brain and the culture at large. It’s a way to push past the status quo and effectively make a bigger team impact. We practiced dozens of drills (a drill is like a workshop) to help facilitators create a space (and fun) space for collaboration.

Here are three flow drills we’ve been using lately.

Brad Flowers leading workshop at Bullhorn

I’m a tool

Despite its title, I’m a tool is not a throwback describing a person who thinks they are cooler than they are. We have been nixing formal round-robin introductions in our early exploratory client meetings. If we need to get full names, official titles, or the number of years worked, we can get information on the side or beforehand. Instead, we ask everyone (including ourselves) to introduce themselves using their first names and what tool they would be. We are loose on the definition of a tool. It can be traditional or not. Unsurprisingly, we learn a lot about people by their answers. 

My go-to answer is an emergency blanket. I tell listeners that I like to help warm people up; I like to lay out that blanket and make space to pause — to reset. This also signals to listeners that I am an empath. I do a lot of listening and like to help people feel at ease. A facilitator could also recognize by my answer that I might need to take breaks or frequent check-ins as I can easily take on other people’s feelings. Gaining this information helps a facilitator make sure I feel safe in group settings. 

Will, our accounts manager, is duct tape. He excels at holding things together, keeping them from falling apart completely. He provides safety in a pinch. His tool also gives a cue that he might have a short-term solution. He needs more time for that. Everyone needs some duct tape at the ready.

Dog in a hat

Imagine seeing a dog in a hat on your morning walk. It’s a sight you likely won’t forget. And will tell others about it throughout your day or week. We all have “dogs in a hat” or memorable moments from the day or the meeting. This is a great drill we run at the end or beginning of a gathering. It’s a great way to reflect on an earlier meeting to get everyone back on track or in the mode for solving or discussing a topic. It’s also an effective way to end a meeting, as it naturally recaps the highlights from everyone’s perspective. 

When I was in New York for Think Wrong, I saw an opened box of half-eaten pizza in the road on my commute to the meeting space. Now this might not be an unusual sight for a New Yorker, but for me, it was memorable and became my “dog in a hat” for that morning’s opening session. When meeting with a team for the second time, you could share a dog in a hat from the first meeting to help create a thread for production. For example, “My ‘dog in a hat’ was when Chris said a logo is not the whole brand. It’s merely the hood ornament.” When everyone shares, these phrases become familiar and can create a micro-culture as a small group.

Workshop at Bullhorn

Peaks and pits

This drill wasn’t new to me, as we’ve done peaks and pits around our dinner table for years. I’ve heard them referred to as “highs and lows” or “happy and crappy.” Whatever you call it,  it’s another great way to begin or end a meeting. I prefer to end meetings this way, especially if it is a challenging conversation or we cover a lot of ground. A peak is your favorite part of the meeting or conversation. A pit is something that was difficult or was your least favorite part. It’s another effective drill in capturing how others are feeling and allowing participants to feel heard. 

Recently, I was at an in-person leadership meeting. It was a long and productive gathering where we addressed a list of issues. One attendee’s peak was how we created action steps around this one issue. Her pit referred to something another team member said that hurt her feelings during the meeting. This was an important moment. And I was glad she voiced her thoughts. Honest reflection leads to a closer-knit team and behavior change. If we hadn’t made space for “peaks and pits,” we wouldn’t have learned her feelings.

Some of my team members would still classify the above exercises as icebreakers. I think they are more intentional than that. They set the stage for a partnership of trust. We have clients we still refer to as their “tool” during conversations. And we have clients that feel heard. We plan to keep using more and more Think Wrong tools as we get better at uncovering branding challenges. And it all starts with a foundation of trust.

Anne Dean Dotson
Anne Dean Dotson

Keep up with Bullhorn