icebreaker ramon

This morning when I saw the headline “Biden Admin Faces Lack of Icebreakers, Increasing Russian and Chinese Threats in Arctic,” I knew that I had to volunteer my expertise and serve my country.  As someone who has led small groups for decades, I’ve had a lot of experience with icebreakers. I know all about icebreakers. I know which ones work and which ones don’t. I know which icebreakers can help a group of people who are strangers to one another to laugh, loosen up, and open up.  I also know what icebreakers can reduce someone to tears or rage, leading them to contact their therapist and/or attorney during the lunch break.  

By definition, an icebreaker is a question or a prompt designed to “break the ice”—the cold, rock-hard tension so thick you can cut with a chainsaw that is initially present within a small group of people who don’t want to be there in the first place, but are in attendance because… 

  1. The boss believes that team building is the solution to the company’s problems, and not his bad decisions, absentee leadership, or the FBI’s ongoing investigation into his personal off-shore investments. 

  1. Signing up for a past-life journaling and goat yoga retreat in Topeka sounded like a good idea at the time. 

  1. Showing up at just three elective workshops during this weekend’s conference will give you all the continuing education credits you’ll need for an entire year.  

  1. The court has mandated weekly group therapy and 50 hours of community service for what you’re calling “a little oops” but the judge labeled a Class C misdemeanor.   

Icebreakers in history 

Most people don’t realize that icebreakers have a long and honored tenure in world history, though usually going unreported, while serving a vital function in some famous moments over the course of thousands of years.  Here are several such memorable episodes where historians seemingly ignored the supportive role of an icebreaker. 

Often before breaking bread, it is helpful to break the ice.  

  • Just before the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus enlisted the disciples to break the huge crowd up into small groups and gave them this ice breaker question, “Who is your favorite Old Testament prophet and why?”  
  • At the first Thanksgiving covered dish picnic and many hours before the painful realization that anything with mayonnaise can’t be left out in the sun for several hours, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans made nametags and broke into groups for an icebreaker.  One of the ice breaker questions reportedly was, “Did the potato salad taste funny to you?” 

Icebreakers influenced early furniture design. 

Have you ever heard of King Arthur and the Knights of the Square Table? No, you haven’t. How about King Arthur and the Knights of the Rectangular Table? Nope. The noble king and his warriors gathered for meals, staff meetings, and poker night at a round table. What is often ignored is the fact that the round table was Merlin’s idea to facilitate his display of magic tricks and leading ice breakers.  

The secret to thawing partisanship is an icebreaker.

In 1787 leaders of the colonies met in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution for the young nation. The convention of 55 men were often in sharp disagreement with one another about various points of such a defining document.  There were moments when it appeared the convention might adjourn, failing to unify and ratify a guiding Constitution. On a fragile morning when morale was low and tempers were high, Benjamin Franklin, revered as a wise peacemaker, addressed the tense gathering and the momentum shifted. 

On September 17th, four months after the convention had first assembled, the finished Constitution was signed. Post-game interviews with signers pointed to the pivotal moment occurring when Ben Franklin paired up the various factions into small groups there in meeting hall and led them in an icebreaker that began with “Share with the other guys in the group your most embarrassing moment in middle school.” Franklin knew that transparency and vulnerability regarding their adolescent humiliations would lower their defenses and unite them in solidarity. 

Update and correction 

My editor just pointed out to me that had I read the actual article and not just the headline I would have realized that in this case an icebreaker is a “ship or boat specifically designed to move through ice-covered waters and provide safe passage for other boats and ships.”  In other words, an icebreaker ship is like a left tackle that clears a hole in the defensive line for his running back.  

Well, while that may be true, if the Russians and the Chinese are indeed a threat to the United States on the frozen seas of the Arctic, instead of ice breaker ships being the answer to the escalating tension, what if the more effective peacemaking solution was the old-fashioned icebreaker?  

What if I persuaded a small delegation of American, Russian, and Chinese officials to meet together, and I led them in an icebreaker that would break down their walls and lower their suspicions through finding common ground and agreement via a fun question? A question like, “If you could spend an inspiring and informative day with OR get coerced secrets and confessions from a past or present Communist dictator, who would you choose and why?”  I think that would go really well, don’t you?  

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin ( the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected].

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