“Icebreaker of the Week” is a recurring feature of the newsletter The Art of Noticing (robwalker.substack.com). Some are icebreakers I made up or experienced or found somewhere; many are submitted by TAoN readers. After many requests, I am collecting & sharing all the icebreakers here.
If you find this useful or enjoyable, consider buying a copy of the book that spawned the newsletter, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways To Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, And Discover Joy In The Everyday. There's a whole section of the book with exercises designed to help you converse with, listen to, and connect with others! Plus it makes a great gift :) But if that’s not your kind of thing, maybe just consider subscribing to the free newsletter spinoff of TAoN (robwalker.substack.com). Either way: Thanks!
My name is Rob Walker. I appreciate your interest. → Please submit your icebreakers (whether you made them up or heard/read them somewhere), or your experiences trying these, to [email protected]
[NOTE: This is a read-only document, please do not ask for editing access! But feel free to just copy and paste the whole thing, and put it in a new document that you can edit per your needs.]
September 20, 2012, TAoN No. 84
This week’s icebreaker is from reader Dan C.:
"When were you sure a bad outcome would be your ruin, but in fact it turned out to your benefit? Was it because you turned lemons into lemonade, or was it due to luck/grace/karma?"
Dan added that there’s a connection to “noticing” here. He writes: “When something ‘bad’ happens: Stop, Take a Breath, Notice. See if you can turn disasters into opportunity. Coppola famously didn't let ‘bad weather’ screw up his shooting schedule; in fact, he would lean into / run toward bad weather and extend shooting to include it. He called bad weather ‘the cheapest special effects you'll ever have.’”
A great point about noticing opportunities in seeming disaster. Thank you Dan!
September 6, 2021, TAoN No. 82
This week’s icebreaker is from Betsy, a librarian from a small school in far west Texas.
What is a food you’ve tried lately that you really liked?
Betsy explains that she floated this question to a cashier at her regular grocery store. “He’s been my quiet, MYOB cashier several times,” she says. “But now that we shared a moment about the acquired taste of seaweed chips I hope we’ll have more of a rapport.”
August 23, 2021, TAoN No. 81
This week’s icebreaker is from my wife, Ellen Susan.
“If you could erase from your brain one piece of knowledge (memory, or fact/set of facts) what would it be?”
A great one! Thanks so much, E.
August 2, 2021, TAoN No. 79
This week’s icebreaker is from this post on conversation starters that I came across somehow.
“If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?���
This has been in my backlog for a while, but it seems like a good one right now.
July 12, 2021, TAoN No. 76
This week’s icebreaker is from reader Mallory Gilmore:
If you could be part of any world record, what would it be?
The back story: Mallory says she was talking to friends about the recent record-breaking temperatures in Canada — presumably a record most of us would prefer not to be part of. But that led her to this question. “I think it would be a neat little insight into what someone thinks is cool, and into their interests and personality,” she explains. “Do they want to break a solo, risky record (e.g., highest dive), or a goofy one (e.g., most straws in the mouth), or a big group one (e.g., largest round of ‘Ring Around the Rosie’), or a serious one (e.g., most patents owned)?”
I love all those examples, and I love this idea, a great one. Thank you Mallory!
June 28, 2021, TAoN No. 74
This week’s icebreaker is from reader Judi Kauffman:
Tell a lie and a true thing about yourself. Let others guess which is which.
Judi explains that she taught college design and art courses for years, and on the first day of class asked students “to tell a lie and a true thing about themselves, making it sound as if both were true. Then the other students had to guess which was which, and defend their choice.” (Those who had a hard time with the idea of lying could make it a “dream.”)
“Lots of laughter and a lot of interesting information emerged,” she continues. “Was that guy a wrestler or a pig farmer? (Wrestler — but his grandfather raised pigs.) Was the quiet, older woman who had wiped off her drafting table before she got settled a nurse or a pilot? (Pilot!)”
Judi would go first. “I said I had been the captain of my swimming team, and that I had been a hair model,” she says. “Most people immediately guessed that I’d been a swimmer because I was lanky, but I don’t leave the shallow end. That was the lie. But when I was a teen and a college student I had very long hair that made me some very good money because it could be teased and shaped any way a stylist envisioned. (Truth be told, I still imagine myself gliding through water like a fish — but it’s never happened!)” I love it. Thanks so much, Judi!
June 16, 2021
This week’s icebreaker is from reader Keith Hester:
If you were alive in [time period X], what do you think your line of work would have been or how would you have earned a living?
Naturally you can change up which time period you’re asking about. “I asked this in a meeting and used the 1870s (aka Wild West),” Keith explained. “I think it provides interesting insight into how people see themselves and their natural gifts/abilities.” (Depending on the period you choose, he adds, you might want to specify ignoring gender/racial restrictions present of that time. Or maybe not.)
As it happens, another reader, Rebecca M., had a similar suggestion some months back that I never got around to using. But consider her variation, too:
Something I like to consider about people, and more specifically those with more technologically deep professions, is: What would (for example) my dentist be doing in the 14th Century? Or a software coder in the Wild West? An avionics engineer in Ancient Egypt? Fish out of temporal waters.
Fascinating that both versions cite the Wild West example! Anyway, you get the gist, so build your own version with whatever time period you find interesting. Thank you Keith and Rebecca!
June 2, 2021
This week’s icebreaker is from Being Hear, a “book about being present and listening,” from designer Scott Boms:
Do you believe in destiny, or in the power of free will?
Scott sent me Being Hear way back in 2019, recognizing the many ways its themes overlapped with The Art of Noticing book and newsletter. Beautifully illustrated by Fuchsia MacAree (see below), it includes essays and meditations and exercises from multiple contributors, and it’s all very enjoyable and thoughtful. One of my favorite sections is a big set of “questions to get to know someone,” divided into two groups – starter questions, and “deeper” questions.
This one is my favorite of the “deeper” set. It’s something I think about a lot. There’s an awful lot of compelling evidence that there is no free will, but I continue to believe in it anyway. I guess that’s a form of faith. What about you?
Check out more of Scott’s terrific work, here. Very belated but very sincere thanks for Being Hear, Scott!
May 17, 2021, TAoN No. 70
This week’s icebreaker is modified and adapted from a post some months back on the blog Marginal Revolution.
What is your most trivial, useless, or flat-out counter-productive superpower?
In the post, writer Tyler Cowen mentions his own prior assertion that “extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.”
One of Cowen’s readers picked up on this and referred to such skills as “useless superpowers,” offering the personal example of an “ability to pour nearly identical amounts of liquid [splitting up a bottle of wine, for instance] without thought or effort.” Cowen asked his readers for their examples.
Many aren’t actually that useless, but the train of thought interests me: Why not push a little further and think about, in effect, negative super powers? I, for example, have learned that I am capable of being completely invisible to bartenders. You?
May 3, 2021, TAoN No. 69
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Caleb Wright.
If you were a boat, what kind of boat would you be? And why?
“A manager asked me this one time,” Caleb writes. “I’ve thought about the question a lot and I use it all the time and get the most interesting answers. It could be a historical boat or just the kind of boat. I said I wanted to be a speed boat because it would be fun to be really fast. My manager said a pontoon so he could be the hangout spot for friends.”
Well I like this one because it seems really weird to me! And I love a weird icebreaker. (My instinct is to say I’d be a container ship? Actually, maybe a junk — because that’s such a great name.)
April 19, 2021, TAoN No. 68
This week’s icebreaker comes from me:
What’s your favorite-ever celebrity sighting? (And related follow-up: Have you ever been truly star-struck?)
Inspired by this review of ex-Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz’s recent memoir Remain In Love; Frantz has apparently had a lot of fun ones, including bumping into a startled Patti Smith on a beach in the Bahamas: “I said, ‘It’s me, Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. Good to see you.’ ” Something about that makes me chuckle.
April 5, 2021, TAoN No. 67
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Doug Fawcett:
What is your most vivid memory of a historical event that occurred during your childhood?
This one is easier for me to answer if the age range includes adolescence — I was a teenager when The Challenger blew up, and have a very strong memory of learning about that from my friend whose locker was next to mine. His class had actually been watching the launch live. That said, Doug’s answer is kind of