Training, Introverts and Ice-Breakers

For some introverts attending a training session even a virtual one, can be an intense experience and a step enough outside their comfort zone. When the ice-breakers arrive, you might find your introverts wishing they could run for the hills.

Yet, we know as Trainers and Facilitators that developing relationships is an important part of working within a team and even a temporary team for the duration of a training session can benefit from these interactions. Social learning theory emphasises how much we learn from observations and interactions with other people.

Our challenge as Trainers is, through an inclusive approach to find the sweet spot that encourages some openness to promote relationship building but respects the reserved nature of many introverts and the combination of personality types in the session.

How we Differ

We now know from neuroscience that introverts and extroverts differ in their sensitivity to the neurochemical dopamine and have different ways of processing information. The level to which this influences your interactions with others will vary from person to person as we also know personality is very complex and temperament is only one aspect of it. Nevertheless, temperament is worth considering when designing a training session.

Small levels of stimulation can increase dopamine levels in an introvert to the point of shut down. Introverts will say, they find they can no longer think or talk because of this overstimulation. Extroverts on the other hand require larger doses of it and are stimulated by external interactions which is why they often prefer to process externally and interact with more people than introverts. I am categorising for the purposes of discussion but generally these are our two big differences.

The good news is, with some awareness and pre-planning there are ways to build relationships, create trust and openness in a team setting that can satisfy everyone. The following are some suggestions around ice-breakers that should support introverts attending feel comfortable, and be in a position to get the most out of the session. When we feel psychologically safe we are able to contribute.

Independent Activities can also be Ice-breakers

An important part of team building is shared experience and so your first ice-breaker to warm everyone up could be an independent activity that does not require verbal contribution but is done together. I enjoyed a communication exercise done by a presenter which involved him asking us to take a square piece of paper and we followed his explicit instructions in how to fold the paper in half, then quarters, cut pieces off the edge and keep folding. One would assume because we had been given the same instructions that our papers should all look the same but when the 15 of us held it up to the camera, we laughed at how different our designs looked. The lesson of course was that we all hear things differently which can make communication so challenging. The other result however was we were warmed up.

Keep Ice-breakers Purposeful

To manage our energy as introverts we seem to instinctively know to focus our engagement on purposeful activities. Choose ice-breakers that will help move the training session along rather than just to get to know each other. You might consider an alternative independent activity relevant to your topic such as a ‘treasure hunt’ on the internet to find an article relevant to your training or put people in breakout rooms and give them a task or problem to solve.

One comment from an introvert said, ‘To me, the best icebreaker is a task or meaningful goal that you work on with someone’.

A purposeful exercise like this will allow introverts to participate fully but comfortably while extroverts who wish to talk it through afterwards can also do that. The results can be captured on a tool like Padlet.

Keep Questions Concrete

If you’re going to ask some warm up introduction questions, I suggest keeping them concrete rather than abstract. Introverts tend to be quite logical thinkers, fMRI’s demonstrate the differing ways our brains process and increased activity in the frontal cortex contributes to our preference for deep thinking and analysis. In one particular exercise I was asked what type of fruit I would be, this did nothing but sent the cortisol shooting through my body and made me feel anxious.

Small Groups

Introverts will generally be more comfortable in small groups so utilising break out rooms even for ice-breakers are a great idea. Assigning a purposeful task rather than a random topic can focus the group. Brian Little, Professor and Author on personality and well-being says

We are like all of the people, we are like some of the people and we are like none of the people’.

A break out room task could be to find commonalities rather than differences as a basis to build meaningful relationships. The results can be captured on a tool such as padlet.

It can be fun

Even Introverts are not opposed to a bit of fun! Integrate an element of competition such as quizzes or as in the example above perhaps the room who have identified the most in common wins. Or a short light hearted video, relevant to the topic can also relax the mood to get the session going.

Keep it Simple

The tool ‘one word’ allows participants to share just one word about a topic which reduces the pressure to speak up for a longer period and makes it easier to process. It can also be contributed in the chat function too but helps everyone see what others are thinking.

Overall, your ice-breaker is there to build a sense of community and togetherness for the purpose of the training session. Ensuring that everyone is comfortable is integral to that. Keep it simple, concrete rather than abstract, purposeful and a balance between independent activity and interaction, is in my opinion is the key to successful ice-breakers.

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