Virtual Environments

3 Icebreakers for the Start of Your Group Sessions Online

I shared a post recently called “3 Ways to Get Grounded at the Beginning of Hosting Your Online Session.” In the article, I talk about three key ways you can apply mindfulness techniques and welcome your group online, whether you’re leading a remote learning class, a corporate organization, a team meeting or a casual meetup group. When we show care and compassion for people as they enter a virtual gathering, we connect with them as humans, inviting them to experience authentic connection. This is a relationship, to enter a mutual virtual space and join together. It all involves an exchange of elemental, necessary trust, as we give each other what many say is among our most precious resources: our time and our attention.

Online communities can be incredibly meaningful spaces for cooperative learning, sharing and collaboration. If you are intentional about how you hold the space as the host, you can help to co-create a powerful experience for everyone involved. So, once you have welcomed everyone, and your session is off and running, how can you invite everyone to connect more deeply and trust this new environment?

This is the daring part, because you don’t want to be the only voice in the virtual room, giving everyone a show-and-tell of static slides. You don’t want your guests to feel they are passively “along for the ride” down another lazy river webinar that threatens to dull the senses. You’d prefer them to engage, to see and feel seen. And, your session together has a time limit. This is where icebreakers come in. With connection in mind, and your deeper mindful intentions set, here are 3 quick icebreakers that will animate the virtual space. You might think you don’t have time for icebreakers, yet these simple exercises pay dividends in terms of your participants’ feelings of connection and engagement. That’s what will spark the enthusiasm that carries over into your entire session to follow.

1. “Item on My Desk” icebreaker

Ask everyone in the group to share an object that’s on their desk or workspace that has a certain backstory that relates to something they care about. Feel free to tell them in advance about this icebreaker, or announce it as a surprise. Each person has 30 seconds to tell the backstory of this item and why it’s significant. Bonus points if they can hold up the item to the camera and show it visibly to the group as they talk about it. Have a sharing order prepared in advance, in a form you can easily access and drop into the chat window of the call. This makes it easy to transition from person to person, and you can even try out a visible countdown timer to keep everyone within the time constraints. This jazzes up the session right away, and I’ve had participants eager to share about everything from a favorite coffee mug to a souvenir from a recent trip. It’s a flash form of storytelling. By the end of this quick exercise, your group will definitely know each other better.

2. “”X” is How I Feel” icebreaker

This icebreaker is a form of a “check-in,” and is a quick and meaningful way to invite everyone to connect with how they are feeling. You are not asking for backstory, you are inviting the group to simply share a snapshot of this moment in time. And, anything goes in this exercise, as there are no wrong answers. The beauty is that “X” can be in any format or theme.

Consider one of the following prompts along this theme: “Choose a word for how you feel, and put that word in the chat window.” OR “If your mood were a color, what color would it be? Dark grey? Brilliant crimson? Deep, lush green? Share the color you’re feeling like in our chat window.” OR, “What sport resembles your mood right now? Are you feeling like you’re in a marathon, steady and constant, or are you in a steep downhill ski competition? Or, are your ideas bouncing like a basketball in your mood right now?”

As you can see, you can take this check-in prompt in many directions. It has SEL (social emotional learning) value, too, as it underscores the need to connect with our emotions. By changing the nature of how we translate and transmit our moods and frames of mind, we also get creative juices flowing and can involve the senses in a deeper way. Consider trying a complementary version of this exercise at the end of your session, as a way to also honor how each member of a community feels at the end of a virtual shared experience.

3. “Sketching: Contour & Gesture” icebreaker

Tell the group that you’re warming up your senses with this 3-minute activity that involves noticing details. The process of noticing is a mindfulness practice, and it centers and focuses the mind. You can plan in advance by asking everyone to arrive for the session with a journal, a pencil/pen, and an object. The object can be found in nature: a stick, acorn, pinecone, leaf, flower, plant… anything. Tell your group: “For the first timed minute, simply hold the object in your hand and observe it. Pay attention to its shape, texture, and the way the light falls on it.

For the next minute, lay the object on the desk and do a contour drawing,. This involves focusing on the edges of the object. You can do a “full immersion contour drawing” where you don’t look down at the paper, but focus deeply on the object. Trace the outline of the object with your eyes as you keep your pen in contact with the paper for a continuous line that is mirroring what your eyes see. Don’t judge the results. Instead, focus on this as an appreciation exercise in noticing the shape and edges of the object.

The third minute is for gesture drawing, which means to be loose in the approach, sketching the object in way that shows movement. It should be rapid and fluid. Even if the object is inanimate, the sketch can show the energy of an object’s personality, reflecting its texture and the way that it responds to the light and elements surrounding it.

At the end of this 3 minute exercise, the group will have a lot to share with each other, and a deeper feeling of focus and presence.

How to Infuse Icebreakers & Storytelling into Every Online Session

These three exercises are powerful for all ages and group sizes, and they definitely warm up the space. There are more icebreakers, exercises and storytelling prompts described in detail in Mindful by Design, and also online. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re interested to try out more strategies to build your “connection capacity.” Coming up, I’ll be leading two courses online. The first focuses on using mindfulness, storytelling and design practices to connect, and the second is about how to lead reflective, meaningful online programs that involve creative techniques. I’m encouraging a playful, curiosity-driven approach to developing these tools, with a spirit of genuine compassion and self-care. These practices are both light and lasting, and can change both the mindsets and motivation of an entire community. And, they’re beneficial to us as leaders looking for expansion and self-awareness.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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