Icebreaker: What’s Your Rhythm?

Reading Time: 1 minute

Icebreaker Time:  10-15 minutes
Here’s a drum circle technique you can use anywhere, even when you have to be really, really quiet.

1. Have a participant say their name, then tap our the rhythm of their name with their hands, either on the table or on their thighs as they say their name.

2. Have the rest of the group join in, tapping the rhythm and saying the name.

3. Ask the participant how it was to have everybody playing the rhythm of their name.

4. Ask others how it was to join in.

5. Do it again with someone else in the group until you run out of time.

6. (Optional):  Debrief with the entire group


  • Use first and last name (sometimes the first name is too short)
  • Use a word or phrase instead of a name. For example, a team could drum it’s values, one at a time, reflecting on what each felt like when played.
  • Vary the speed, volume or style, either by demonstrating or by asking questions “What would it sound like louder, quieter, slower, rock and roll style?” etc.

This simple exercise is a mindfulness meditation.  It gives participants a different way to simply accept and be touched by another’s offering.  In addition, having your name drummed by others can be a powerful experience. Drumming a word or phrase that has meaning for the team can be similarly powerful – it’s a way to sit with a word or phrase before deciding whether you agree or disagree with it.  Slowing our rush to judgement helps us become present with one another.

The R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Icebreaker

Reading Time: 2 minutes


R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  Since Aretha Franklin’s recent death, I’ve been hearing this song everywhere – blaring from a bar as I walk past, on someone’s phone at the next table over, from the stage at a concert.  And respect always ends on a list of ground rules for meetings I facilitate.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a definition we all agreed on?  Even better would be the behaviors and practices of respect – what respect looks like in action.

I think of respect as having two parts:  The basic respect that you get simply by being born, and the respect you earn.  Anything you earn you can lose.  What you are born with, stays.

An example of basic respect is being acknowledged.  I can acknowledge another’s presence, their humanity, or words they’ve spoken.  Basic respect doesn’t have to include liking or agreeing, it’s simply acknowledging what is.  Paraphrasing is an excellent way to show respect without agreement.  In one economical motion you acknowledge their presence, humanity and what they have said.

Paraphrasing?  Not again.

Oh, yes, Grasshopper – again and again and again.  All the listening skills you’ve learned and discarded as too cumbersome?  They are skills for respecting others, especially when that other is not like you.  Perhaps they are female to your male, introvert to your extrovert, brown or black to your white, lower or higher on the hierarchy.  Basic respect is where communication starts, and without communication, there is no learning, cohesion or progress.  When your group is diverse, having a common way to show respect becomes your foundation.

It’s especially important to show basic respect before you lean forward to make your point.  I’m not talking about the tortured, robotic paraphrasing of yore:  “What I think I hear you you saying is…” Gah!  I’m talking about conversational paraphrasing, the kind actual humans use:  “Nancy suggests we use kryptonite to slow Superman down (Look at Nancy to further acknowledge her and to see whether you got that right).    Then you are free to add, “I think that’s a good start and I want to go even farther, ” or, “I see it differently.”

The Respect Icebreaker

This is one you can use over and over, as a basic respect drill.  It’s simple:

  1. One person – person A – makes a statement – it can be innocuous or controversial.  I recommend starting with innocuous.
  2. The person next to them – Person B – paraphrases what they heard.
  3. Person A gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up if Person B got it right and shakes their head sadly if they missed all or part of it.
  4. Move on to the next two people in the circle and repeat steps 1-3 if person B was successful.  If Person B wasn’t successful, Person A reads or speaks their statement again.

Ways to keep this fresh:

  • Time it and make it competitive – maximum understanding in minimum time.
  • Shift from content to connection and empathy – maximum connection in minimum time.
  • Have the group rate the paraphrase rather than just the person who reads the statement.
  • Divide into teams and where two persons from opposing teams compete to paraphrase quickest or best (content and connection).  Have judges that give scores.
  • Use more controversial or difficult phrases – especially those that you actually hear from clients, customers or co-workers.
  • Reflect back the emotion as well as the content in the paraphrase (“you sound very convinced you are right.”  “You seem upset”  “I feel frustrated when I listen to you.  Are you frustrated?”

The “Yes, And…” Icebreaker

Reading Time: 1.5 mins

Icebreaker Time:  6-10 mins

It’s 92 degrees with 90% humidity and there isn’t even a fan in the room. Our teacher is twenty minutes late. A long-time student stands and turns to face us.

“While we’re waiting for Bob, I think he’d like me to tell you about the two rules of improv. The first rule is to say yes to everything.  Unless we say an unconditional yes to everything, there is nothing to create a scene with.  ‘No’ kills the scene, so we say ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’  ‘Yes, but’ is just an indirect way of saying ‘no.'”

Someone raises their hand, and asks “What’s the second rule?”

“The second rule of improv is that there is no second rule of improv.”  We all laugh and get up nervously to practice in pairs.  One-by-one, someone doubles over with laughter.  It’s like a big game of whack-a-mole:  People who were standing talking suddenly are laughing so hard they cannot stand.  Bob shouts over us:  “Let’s workshop this” and most of us sit down to watch the pair he has singled out.  One of them is still bent over laughing.

Bob gives them a word to start with:  Blister.

“Knock, knock”

“I hate knock-knock jokes.”  (Yes, but – I’ll play, just not your way)

“No really – knock, knock.”  (Yes, but – play my way or not at all.)

His partner freezes.  There is a moment of uncomfortable silence before Bob steps in full of attitude and says “Fine.  Who’s there?”


Bob, rolling his eyes and sighing, says “Bliss who?”

“Bliss-ter!  Get it?”

“How did you know I had a blister?  That’s amazing!  Wait – can you read minds?”

And the scene takes off.

Play to Control or Play to Explore?

You’ve probably been in loads of “yes, but” meetings, meetings where one or more people came with an idea they want others to adopt while pretending to “want input,” or “be open to feedback,” or say “let’s figure this out together.”  And you’ve felt the energy die and seen awkwardness creep in just like it did in the above example.  While it is perfectly valid to ask people to see things your way, pretending otherwise can create a callous in a group.  Over time, this pretense becomes the way we meet and can even evolve into:  “While you are pretending to listen to me, I am pretending to agree with you.”  Demanding control is like that:  It stalls creativity and true collaboration.

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker is a playful way to break up old habits and get the spirit of improv and creativity back in your meetings.  It’s simple, easy and quick:

  1. Agree on a time.  3-5 minutes for the icebreaker and 3-5 minutes to debrief works well.
  2. Set a ground rule of responding to everything by saying “Yes, and…”
  3. The first person makes a statement and the person next to them (the second person) responds by saying “yes, and…”
  4. The next person in the circle responds to what the second person says by saying “yes, and..”
  5. Proceed around the circle until the game stops of its own accord or you run out of time.
  6. Debrief by asking people to reflect on what happened.  Ask how the icebreaker differs from a typical meeting.  Ask how “yes, and” can become a part of regular meetings.

Hint:  Look for speed and fluency – do rounds where you speed up the response time; adopt a ground rule of no pausing, etc.  The focus is on letting go of where you think the conversation was going or should have gone.  Think up your own variations.

Here’s an example

First person: “Dogs are the best pets.”

Second person: “Yes, and I love how they bark at everything.”

Third person “Yes, and their soft coats are my favorite part.”

Fourth person: “Yes, and I like that you can take them to the pound if they don’t work out.”

Fifth person: “Yes, and ‘pound’ reminds me that I love pound cake!   Lemon is my favorite.”

Sixth person:  “Yes, and I love pounding things too – like dough when I make bread.”

Don’t forget to let me know in the comments how this works for you – and share your variations with the rest of us too.  We thank you!


One-Word Story, a Team-Building Icebreaker

This is just like the clap-pass icebreaker, but words replace a hand-clap.   It’s just as fast and energizing, with one change:  It can be harder to let go into the flow of the story.


The group can either sit or stand in a circle.  Tell them they are to tell a story as a group using only one word each.  Choose the first person and ask them for a word, then cue the next person and the next and the next.  Limit everyone to 1 word and keep them moving.  Like clap-pass, rhythm helps.


Ask participants what it was like to participate and enjoy their answers.  You’ll hear things like:  “It was hard to let go of the story I wanted to tell!”   “I didn’t want to get stuck with words like ‘the,’ ‘and,’ ‘or, ‘it,’ when I had a really great word in mind.”  “My brain froze because I liked my idea for a story better than the one we were telling.”

This icebreaker is a microcosm of being in a team. We want to contribute, and we want to contribute what we think is best or coolest, regardless of what the team – or the client, if you are a consultant – needs.  If you want to go deeper, ask about how a team might introduce fairness into its work together.  What may come out is how 1 or 2 people with the loudest voices or strongest egos always have more influence on the team’s conversations and work.  We have a deep instinct for fairness.  We all have control needs too.  How are you balancing those needs?  This icebreaker can help you raise that question.  Answering it might be a simple as agreeing to take turns or occasionally impose arbitrary and artificial limits on speaking times.




Two Truths and a Lie Icebreaker

Two truths and a lie is the most consistently funny icebreaker in my repertoire.  You can re-use it too, because people have to come up with a new material each time:  a new lie about themselves and two new truths to hide it behind.  It works best for small groups, by which I mean 5-7 people.  It can stretch to groups of 8-10, but that can get time-consuming, and time pressure takes the fun out of this one.

The instructions are simple:

1. Ask everybody to write down 2 things that are true about themselves and one thing that is a lie.

2. Have one person read their list.

3. Ask the rest of the group to guess which is the lie.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each person in turn.

VARIATION:  Have people write down and share 2 truths and a lie about someone else.

CG #53 – Refresh Your Team in 30 Minutes

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a “refresh” button for the exhausted team?  There is.

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Word Count: 544

Reading Time: 2.2 minutes

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It’s February as I’m writing this.  Groundhog Day has come and gone, and the reality of 6 more weeks of winter is sinking in.  Your team could use a pick-me-up.  The Appreciation Circle may be just the thing.

You may be thinking “Oh no, not another awkward, artificial act of forced intimacy at work!”   I did.   I’ve never been more wrong.

My first appreciation circle was with strangers during a week-long workshop, and I was nervous.  We’d worked together on team projects for the past couple of days, and some of us had eaten lunch together.  I’d had almost no interaction with some of them.  What if I couldn’t come up with genuine things to appreciate about everyone? What if their appreciations of me were so off I couldn’t accept them graciously, or pretend to?  I was full of trepidation as I sat down to write my list.

The instructions were simple:  1. Write down on thing you appreciate about each of your teammates, 2. Sit in a semi-circle with the person receiving appreciation facing the semi-circle. 3. Designate a recorder for each person. 4. One person at a time makes eye contact with the recipient and says what they appreciate about them.  This includes the recorder.  5.  The recipient says thank you to each person – nothing more or less.  6.  When everyone has spoken, the recipient gets their written list and trades places with the next recipient.  A new recorder is chosen.

An appreciation circle takes about 30 minutes for a team of 5-7.

My first surprise was how easy it was to come up with one thing I appreciated about each person.   Even the most difficult person had a quality or had done something I valued.  It was fun to think the appreciations up and fun to deliver them.  Best of all, I found myself looking for things to appreciate in people over the next few days, which was a delight.

The second surprise was what happened to people when they were being appreciated.  Being allowed to only say “thank you” slowed them down.  You could see them letting in what others appreciated about them.  Their eyes got softer and more open.

But it was my experience in the center of the circle that surprised me most.  People said the most lovely things to me.  It was like being bathed in light.  It didn’t matter whether I thought they were true.  It wasn’t like that.  It was like being given a really thoughtful gift, one the giver had poured their caring into so much that you could feel it.  The real gift they were giving was their vulnerability in wanting to give you something of value.

Here’s the thing about an appreciation circle – it’s a chance to learn something you can’t find out by yourself:  What other people value most about you.  What specifically they like about what you did or how you are.  It’s very particular to them and that experience, which makes it easy to receive.

My first appreciation circle was 15 years ago.  I still have my list.


CG #49 –Dodging the Communication Deficit

Talking at people creates a communication deficit, yet I’ve got to get them understanding and moving on this year’s goals.  Help!


Word Count:  644

Reading Time:  About 3 minutes


Morty was a gifted presenter.  His ability to turn big, fuzzy ideas into complex, technical realities seemed like magic.   Although Morty was mesmerizing to listen to,  his presentations left his audience confused and irritated.

Morty and I had worked together on many meetings over the years.  His goal for this year’s annual meeting was to leave his audience deeply connected to his vision and energized about working on it.

He had an hour in the team’s annual team meeting and was planning to present for most of it.  As we talked, I suggested he start by asking his audience – all engineers – what they thought his top 3 goals were.   Asking first is my strongest recommendation for reducing the communication deficit.  (Just a reminder:  The speed of thought is 4 times the speed of speech; the more words your spew, the smaller the space your words occupy in your listeners thoughts.)

When you ask first, you’ll hear two ways to reduce the communication deficit:

1.  You find out what you don’t need to say, which means you won’t bore your audience and lose them.

2. You will hear what is on their minds, enabling you to make your presentation relevant to them.  This helps them focus their speedy thinking on the topic at hand.

You’ll get 2 additional benefits:  Your audience will feel respected and cared for. This is true even if they are completely off the mark, and need to be reeled in, provided you do that with care.

But this may be too much too soon, as it was for Morty, and that’s alright.  The thought of asking his engineers about departmental goals first made Morty so uncomfortable, we went with option #2: Break up his presentation into smaller chunks and pause for a round robin check-in after each chunk.  He was willing to try it.

Five minutes into his presentation, he stopped to check in with his audience, asking them “How is this sounding so far?”  He used a round robin format, adhering strictly to the steps:

1. Give everyone a minute in silence to gather their thoughts.  (Time it, or the extraverts will break the silence.)

2.  Give each person 10 seconds to share their thoughts.  (Time this too.)

3.  Do not interrupt to comment, and don’t allow anyone else to either.

The results were visible.  I saw Morty’s face open up and his shoulders relax as he heard each thoughtful, considered response.  I saw the engineers lean forward in their chairs and put energy into connecting with Morty.  Best of all, I watched Morty engage with his group, summarizing the key points said and nodding

Best of all was what he did next:  He went back to his slides and skipped over those that were no longer necessary.  The slides he did show, he related to the comments he’d heard in the round robin.  Now the engineers were nodding as he spoke.   Listening to the group for just 10 minutes helped him tell his story in a way that included everyone on the room.

I get goose bumps thinking about it.

Your Turn

You don’t have to be an executive to do this.  You can be someone leading an agenda item in a meeting, someone presenting to a group, or a member of a group that is spinning its wheels.

The principle is the same:  Ask first.  Use the Round Robin structure.  It will take mere minutes.

You wouldn’t dream of going on and on about yourself to a stranger at a party.  That’s considered boorish.  What is it about a business meeting that turns us into the stranger at the party we all back away from?

Leadership is going first.  Be the first to ask.




CG #33 – Is Your Client Toxic or Merely Difficult?

We all have ‘em:  Clients that bring out the worst in us, clients we have trouble loving, clients for whom the work seems doomed.   What’s a consultant to do?

Word Count:  746

Reading Time: 2.5 minutes

You know what I’m talking about.  It’s the client you can’t do anything right for, the one where everything you do backfires.   It’s the job where you act like an amateur even though you are a seasoned pro.  What can be done about these clients?  First off, let’s ask a better question.

Because it’s never the person, it’s the system.  And you’ve gotten caught in it.

That’s the first sign you may be in a toxic system, rather than a merely difficult one.  With a difficult client, you can recognize the cow pie in time to step over it.  In the toxic client system, you can’t help but step in it.

Here are the four steps I use to navigate a toxic system.

There are certain signs that let me know I’ve left the waters of typical resistance and entered the bizarre world of the difficult client system.

There is a big difference between ordinary resistance and a client system that’s gone toxic.

See if these toxic symptoms sound familiar to you:

  • They keep you in the dark.  There is an inner sanctum, and you are not allowed in.  It does not matter that the information you need to solve their problem is in there. You are on your own, without a map or compass.
  • You can’t do anything right.  Not only is figuring out what to do a moving target, but when you do take aim and fire, you know it’s going to rebound on you.  And you know it’s going to hurt, because the entire system is going to smack you.
  • If the difficult client system responds to a request, it’s a feeble, vague response, like “I don’t know.” or “We don’t have one of those,” or “We’ve never done that before.”  You are passed from feeble person to feeble person like a hot potato.
  • Feeble alternates with over-reactive, as when your client sounds the alarm and copies God and everybody on the email about your most recent failing, then micromanages your every move.
  • Although it’s hard to get people to talk to you, it’s clear they are talking about you.  The toxic client system has a lightening-fast communication plan: Gossip.

The gift of diagnosis is that it demands you perform the first function of consulting:  Separating your “stuff” from your clients “stuff.”

Compassion that holds others accountable is the best indicator that you’ve accomplished this.

Until you do that, you are in no position to help anyone.  You’re too hooked.  That’s what’s keeping you up at night. Not your difficult client, but your own stuff that’s been activated by this client system, this assignment, this situation.   That’s why I’m going to do this part for you:

In the toxic client system, anxiety has gone viral.

That’s why everybody is acting crazy.  That’s why you are acting crazy.


Unlike empathy and sympathy, which can both leave you paralyzed, compassion is rooted in accountability, and accountability takes action.   Compassion connects without merging, and doesn’t let anybody off the hook.   Though we are in this together, compassion knows we are walking separate paths of responsibility.

Accountability is separating out the 3 strands of responsibility – yours, mine,  and God’s.  You can’t be effective in someone else’s business.  When you are minding your own business, you are no longer “hooked.”.  And when you’re no longer “hooked,” compassion arises in you without effort.


Taking too big a step makes it easy to stray into someone else’s business. Straying into someone else’s business is how the client systems got toxic in the first place.  That’s why you need to make every step you take in a toxic client system smaller.  Make your actions so small you don’t appear to have moved at all.  Be respectful, even theatrically respectful about your requests.  You have to look and act harmless.  This is the only way to make progress without causing the system to react against you.

When I am working in a toxic client system, I accept that the system may be too anxious to make even the smallest positive change.  Knowing what they can tolerate is their business, not mine.   In those instances, I focus on the person or relationship I can strengthen and let go of the rest.



Strengths-Based Icebreaker for large groups

In my previous post using strengths-based icebreakers, I suggested using Martin Seligman’s free instrument, the Signature Strengths Questionnaire, having people group according to highest strength, talk and report out.

That’s one approach.  Here’s another that works especially well for large groups (50+) and requires less prep for the facilitator:

1. Have everyone take the strength instrument du jour.  I like Seligman’s because he’s using it to do further research and the results feel the most personal.  The other Strengths-based instruments such as the one from Gallup seem to me more business-oriented in their language, which can be a plus for groups who fear navel-gazing.  Personally, I’ve taken them all and find comparing the results fascinating.

2. Make sure participants bring a list of their top five strengths to the meeting.

3. Introduce strengths and what it means to use them so people understand the difference between a deficit-based approach to leadership versus a strengths-based approach.

4. Have people stand and sort themselves into groups according to their #1 strength

5. Ask each group how their #1 strength can  contribute to the group.

6. Have each group report out.

You can repeat this for as many of the top 5 strengths as you have time for and the group has interest in.  Keep this moving and the reports-outs concise.  I find it easy to get through the top 3, and doable to get through the top 5.  Keep the summary and debrief short:  All that’s needed is to highlight the treasure trove of strengths available to the group, and remind them they are responsible for mining them.  If the group were a treasure map, you’ve shown them where the “X” is that marks where the treasure is buried.  They’ve got to dig them out.


Why can’t the whole meeting be an icebreaker?

Why we love icebreakers:

A good icebreaker accomplishes 5 things:

  • People are more energized and brighter afterwards.
  • They are more connected to each other.
  • They’ve had fun and accomplished something specific they could not have done alone.
  • They’ve used a transparently fair process that involves everybody and allows synergy to build, regardless of rank, other demographics, their differences, etc.
  • They’ve done it while still being led without loss of leadership.

That’s what a collaborative meeting does.  If your meetings aren’t doing that now, take heart.  It’s as easy as 1-2-3.

1.  Design the meeting (25%)

result, authority (implicit in icebreaker – not awkward), process

2. Have the meeting (50%)

be real, be present, be firm, be flexible.  Only 50% – plan yourself into appropriate participation and out of doing all the talking.  Leadership isn’t doing the most talking.  That’s being a boor.

3. Follow up (25%)

This is the key to success.


Leadership is not doing the most talking.

Sign:  “If things don’t add up, then it is time to subtract.”