Administration & Leadership

Building Authentic Community During Meetings

Instead of doing icebreakers, facilitators can offer activities that encourage participants to make genuine connections with each other.

July 8, 2024
Nikola Stojadinovic / iStock

A meeting or workshop is scheduled, and its general purpose is centered around team building or some variation of culture building. The facilitator sets the stage by saying, “OK, in order to get to know each other better, we are going to do an icebreaker.” In this moment, you and the group might experience a tsunami of emotions ranging from excitement to indifference to melancholy and even anxiety. 

The latter of this range often shows up in ways like a reluctance to participate or, worse, in a situation in which you’re essentially “voluntold” either directly or indirectly that your participation is required. Because I’ve experienced all of the above more times than I’d like to count, I decided many years ago that I would not lead any icebreakers in my work. This led to a definitive shift from icebreakers to community builders. 

Icebreakers Often Don’t produce the Desired Result

Icebreakers are generally defined as activities or games designed to warm up the participants of a meeting, workshop, or event. Their primary goal is to ease initial tension or awkwardness among the participants who may be unfamiliar with each other or to inject energy into the group. 

But icebreakers often go awry. I’d like to take a look at how that happens, and why I choose not to do them.

Time: The activities are often very brief in structure and format. They follow a specific set of rules and tasks that must fit within a short amount time.

Engagement: Because the activities (far too often) create something like a bandwagon effect ethos, the participation is more often superficial. As I like to say, they run the risk of being performative and microwave relationships instead of letting connections develop organically.

Interaction: More often than not, the level of interaction is not relevant to the purpose of the gathering. This runs a very real risk of inducing anxiety in the group’s introverts and more reserved members and, quite frankly, forces individuals to reveal something about themselves that may require a higher level of emotional capital expenditure for them than for most other people.

One-off: Icebreakers are typically conducted at the start of a gathering, and due to the above-listed factors, they rarely lead to any meaningful group dynamic beyond the activity itself.

Focus on Characteristics That Build Community 

I prefer to engage in activities that are community builders. These carefully and meticulously designed activities aim to curate deeper meaning of our shared connection and purpose for the gathering, create group cohesion, and foster a truly supportive ethos.

Purpose-driven and intentional: Each activity has a clear objective that aligns with the goals of our gathering. They are designed to be accessible and inclusive, and they embrace the individual differences in the room.

Meaningful and purposeful interaction: Community builders encourage participants to engage in more creative and meaningful discussions along with purposeful but voluntary collaboration (which is key). On a side note, collaboration is generally better when it is voluntary. The interactions are set to allow for varying degrees of sharing personal experiences, thoughts, ideas, and goals of the activity.

Engagement: The activities are structured to take participants to meaningful interactions aligned with an investment/ownership of learning within the activity. This dynamic is often referred to as agency.

Flexibility and creativity: The activities you implement should always allow for flexibility and creativity. Also, when designing the activity, it’s important for the activity to be nonjudgmental—i.e., free from any opinionated, moral, creative, or rubric intended assessment. This is purely an action-oriented, end-in-itself activity.

How to Design a Meaningful Community-Building Activity

If you’re the facilitator, it starts with intentionality: What do you want the participants to feel? What do you want the participants to achieve? How is that achievement connected to the reason why the group is gathered in the first place? Once these design questions are addressed, the next questions are: Can the activity be accessed by all? Did I follow a more Universal Design approach and awareness? What barriers might I anticipate and thus account for prior to the activity? Do ability, race, gender, or personal background hinder the activity?

Next, it’s important to communicate the purpose and ethos of the gathering—stressing the importance of active listening and communication. I often share that in our spaces, we carry our experiences in an invisible knapsack, and our goal is to give grace to ourselves and others. 

A purposeful way to do this is to encourage open-ended questions that invite thoughtful responses and allow participants to use their agency and share their perspectives to whatever degree they like. Finally, the last thing to consider is the essential communicative component of feedback. In this context, two of my favorite identifiers are laughter and smiles. Often, the best feedback is what you observe rather than what you are told.

So what does all of this look like in action? Although I’ve designed many different activities, one of my favorites is a meme design task. 

The setup: I prepare a shareable slide deck that sets the tone for the activity. I include several slides that show popular memes, what meme design looks like, the types of images most often used in memes, a blank slide that can be used, a few slides with images that can be used as an option, and finally, a slide that contains links to several websites that have meme templates. The primary goal here is to provide guidance and eliminate any anticipatory barriers to getting started. Participants are encouraged to work in pairs, groups, or teams, but not required to do so. 

In this setup, people often ask me what topic they should choose. In order for this activity to work best, I always advise them to choose a topic that resonates with them or inspires their creativity.

The instructions: The purpose of the activity is to explore creativity as much as possible. Yes, there will likely be lots of conversations, laughter, and ideas shared, but in this activity, barriers to creativity are removed, natural group dynamics are free to occur without interference, and the choice to be part of a pair or group is purely up to the individuals. This decreases the likelihood of anxiety being induced. 

Typically, the activity lasts about 20–25 minutes, and once the design is complete, individuals and groups submit their designs to a gallery where everybody can view them. 

Outcome and reflection: When possible, we discuss the process and even share reactions to the memes in the gallery. During breaks in a workshop, I often put the meme gallery on an automatic display to serve as a reminder of our time together.

When we focus on building community, we can definitively address many of the things that are often overlooked when it comes to our gatherings. We can, by design, support the social and emotional health of the group, ensure that each and every individual is welcomed as a part of the group, foster a shift from surface-level engagement to investment and ownership, and invoke both fun and play into our time together.

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