Many years ago, I taught Negotiation and Conflict Resolution with a group called “Conflict Management, Inc.” They were an offshoot of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Every so often I’m asked, “can you recommend and activity or icebreaker that will help launch a soft-skills workshop?”
The Arm Exercise remains one of my all-time favorites. It’s active, quick, and clearly establishes the need for training, showing our tendency to:
- Assume a zero-sum world
- Approach negotiations as adversaries
- Restrict communication
- Limit negotiators’ ability find an optimal solution
Setting up the game
You must never say the words “arm wrestle.” Here’s what you do:
- Have everyone find a partner.
- Ask partners to “assume this position.” Demonstrate with a volunteer, and hand link position with both of your elbows on the table.
- Explain, “This is a very easy exercise. There are two things you must know.
- 1- you get a point if the back of your partner’s hand touches the table
- 2-you want to get as many points for yourself as possible. You don’t care about anyone else.
- Explain, “Each ‘point’ is worth one M&M. You will have only 10 seconds to get as many M&Ms as you can. GO.”
Now for the debrief
- Poll the group: By a show of hands, ask how many points each person got. “0 points?” “1-5 points?” “6-20 points?” “More than 20?”
- Behavior questions: For a team that got a LOT of points, ask, “what did you do?” If everyone gets locked, ask “How did you lock? Why? Could you have done anything differently?” Offer to show how some teams generated many points: by either flip flopping their hands backward and forward or by repeatedly tapping one players hand on the table and agreeing to share the points.
- Reasoning questions: For pairs who got many points, ask how or why they did what they did. How did they come to that? Who said what to whom? What were you thinking? Did the person who came up with the idea offer tap the the back of their partners hand on the table, rather than their own?
- Assumptions questions: For teams that got very few points, try to tease out the assumptions they made that limited their success, such as:
- We’ve seen this game before
- We know how this game is played
- We assumed no communication
- We assumed we had to keep our hands together
- We didn’t trust each other
- We assumed the rules were set
At the end of the experience, discuss how difficult it is to dismantle assumptions and develop a collaborative approach when folks assume that more for one person means less for the other.