Icebreakers are a bouquet of things introverts hate, like public speaking and being the center of attention. But there are ways to get through them.
When I started my current job, I was worried about a lot of things: meeting new people, learning a new position, and figuring out how to do everything remotely, to name a few. But what I was not prepared for was discovering that every day began with a virtual morning meeting centered around an icebreaker.
As an introvert, I am much more content listening to others than speaking, especially when I’m around people I don’t know well. But all of the sudden, in addition to meeting new people and learning a new job, I had to answer a completely random question about myself (my least favorite topic), in front of strangers, and with no notice. Every. Single. Day.
I’m pleased to say that I’ve been there for almost a year now, and, despite some incredibly awkward moments, I can get through the meetings with a bit more grace than before (most days, at least). So if you find yourself in a similar position, here are some things I’ve found useful in learning how to handle those dreaded workplace icebreakers, whether they’re in person or via video calls.
6 Ways for Introverts to Handle Those Dreaded Workplace Icebreakers
1. Have some rehearsed, go-to answers.
When you think of icebreakers, what’s your first thought? Most of us can rattle off a list of questions we’ve answered a few hundred times. Favorite color? Food? Fun fact about yourself? Despite the fact that I’m well aware of these common questions — and could easily answer them if I wasn’t put on the spot — if you ask me any one of them, my mind will go completely blank.
I always felt like there was something wrong with me because of this. As someone who struggles with overthinking, I’ve always wanted a way to turn off my brain — just not when people were staring at me! But it turns out I’m not alone in this. Thanks to the way we process things, we “quiet ones” can struggle with thinking, and speaking, on our feet. Even if we can think of something to say, the act of putting our thoughts into a coherent sentence can be a challenge.
The good news? Even though it may seem unnecessary or slightly ridiculous right now, writing down a list of answers to some of these common questions can take the pressure off the next time you’re stuck between a question and a blank mind. Even if you don’t have the list in front of you, the physical act of writing it down can make it easier to retrieve it when you need it, giving you a little extra confidence in a new, uncomfortable situation.
2. Do some research, especially if you’re not a “wing it” kind of person.
If you’ve ever been blindsided by a completely random, off-the-wall icebreaker, you know it’s impossible to know exactly what might be asked. Aside from the common questions already mentioned, over the past year, I’ve been faced with everything from “What’s your worst fear?” to “If any animal could be the size of a dog, what animal would you want as a pet?” Interesting questions, for sure, but not conducive to easy or simple answers.
While not all introverts struggle with anxiety, many, including me, do. And a common sign of anxiety is always being prepared, something I definitely strive to be. I’m well aware that I’m not a “wing it” kind of person, and I’ve accepted that and try to plan accordingly. But icebreakers pose a unique challenge in this regard.
Although there’s no perfect solution to this problem, there is still something you can do. If you know there’s a good chance you’ll face an icebreaker in a meeting or get-together, I’ve found that skimming through a quick online search of “icebreaker questions” and considering what my answers would be helps me feel more prepared. While you likely won’t find the exact icebreaker you’ll face, introverts are naturally creative, and if we give our unique minds a chance to brainstorm before a high-pressure situation, we just might be surprised at what we can think of in the moment!
3. Focus on what others are saying.
Icebreakers are an uncanny bouquet of things introverts hate: public speaking, being the center of attention, small talk… they’re truly the stuff of nightmares. I can hear it now, “What’s a recurring nightmare or dream you’ve experienced?” Whenever I’m faced with one of these personal and very specific questions, I always feel like I’m oversharing.
I, like many introverts, would happily choose a deep, meaningful discussion over mindless small talk. But when asked even a semi-personal question, I’m extremely uncomfortable with sharing, at least in a large group and in 30-second increments. But I’ve found that if I can look past being uncomfortable sharing about myself and focus on listening to what everyone else is saying, I can leave the meetings feeling like I did at least get to know everyone a little better.
There are some great thought-provoking icebreakers out there. And shifting the focus from how to respond to listening and making connections with others instead — something us “quiet ones” value immensely — can help relieve the pressure of responding “correctly.” After all, icebreakers are intended to help us get to know each other, not cause stress!
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4. Jot down an answer while other people are answering the question.
This has been a lifesaver for me. For the longest time, I found myself rambling in a desperate attempt to sync my thoughts and words into a coherent, intelligent, and interesting answer. But the harder I tried, the more rambling and nonsensical my answers became, and the worse I felt after the meetings. It’s often not until a few hours — or even days — later that I will suddenly come up with the “perfect” response: an answer that somehow combines wit and humor while striking a chord of relatability causing everyone to laugh and nod along in recognition (in my head, at least). I think a lot of us introverts struggle with this!
So, in a desperate attempt to compose one of these magical answers during the actual meeting, I began writing down anything I could think of. Even if it wasn’t good, I’d write it down. If I had to answer quickly, I’d at least have a basic idea to go off of. If I had more time while my coworkers were answering, I would write out my answer completely, so then all I had to do was read it. No ad-libbing, improvising, or feeling like I was losing control while everyone’s attention was on me.
Public speaking may not be our strong suit, but writing definitely is! Getting something on paper, even if it’s just a word or two, gives us the opportunity to make connections and get our thoughts organized — before we have to translate them into words. While I certainly haven’t impressed my coworkers with any spellbinding, life-changing answers, I have at least been able to get my thoughts out in complete sentences, and that’s a win in my book!
5. Take initiative — if you lead the icebreakers, you can script exactly what you want to say.
When my work had us start taking turns leading the meetings and picking the icebreakers, my first reaction was utter horror. Lead a video chat? Pick a question that’s funny but not childish, personal but not intrusive, interesting but not dramatic? For my overthinking brain, that was way, way too much.
But, much like reframing icebreakers from annoying small talk to brief opportunities to connect with others, choosing the question, although stressful, provides the ultimate opportunity to prepare. The options are limitless, and you can ask a question about a topic you love and are confident talking about. Plus, you can take your time writing out exactly what you want to say.
Although this may seem contradictory for us “quiet ones,” taking this small step outside our introvert comfort zones may in fact allow us to fully take advantage of our strengths. Yes, speaking up can be difficult to do, but in return, you have the opportunity to script exactly what you want to say — and that’s exactly what I’ve done. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but, at least for me, it’s a brief intermission from being put on the spot. So if you ever have the opportunity to ask the question, it’s well worth considering!
6. Remember — you’re not alone!
While these tips have helped me handle icebreakers better than I used to, there are still days where they just suck. Whether we’re stuck facing a personal question or rambling through an answer that didn’t make sense, it’s no wonder so many introverts wish icebreakers would become a thing of the past.
But although it may feel like all eyes are on you, the truth is, most people are probably trying to figure out their own answers. I know that, most days, I have a hard time remembering what everyone around me said. And when you consider the fact that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the U.S. population are introverts, there’s a very good chance that someone around you is feeling just as stressed and overwhelmed as you are.
So when all else fails, remembering that you’re not alone can help provide a little comfort, perspective, and self-compassion when faced with these stress-inducing icebreakers. And we could all use more of that.
Fellow introverts, what are some ways you get through work icebreakers? I’d love to hear in the comments below!