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Arm "Wrestle" Exercise

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 an activity or icebreaker that will help launch a soft-skills workshop?” The Arm Exercise (a.k.a. Arm Wrestle Icebreaker) remains one of my all-time favorites, to break the ice or raise awareness of assumptions.  It’s active, quick, and clearly establishes the need for training, showing our tendency to:

  1. Assume a zero-sum world
  2. Approach negotiations as adversaries
  3. Restrict communication
  4. Limit negotiators’ ability to find an optimal solution

Setting up the Arm Exercise — Never say “WRESTLE”!

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.”

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 player’s 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 to tap the back of their partner’s 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 arm wrestle icebreaker, 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.

Read More on Icebreakers

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7 thoughts on “Arm "Wrestle" Exercise”

  1. Myra Holt says:

    I love it! We were just discussing a teacher training to help them have a different perspective about parents who don’t get involved in their child’s education, and then I read this. What a great way to get folks thinking about perspective.

  2. Jorge Arboleda says:

    Thank you for sharing this activity. It is absolutely what I am looking for my Human Behavior in Organizations class. I appreciated it for the following reasons:
    1) My class is only 90 minutes long plus I have to debrief and give a short lecture on negotiation.
    2) I need something that is simple to explain and requires no preparation.
    3) I like the fact there is a portion for each one to experience a quick negotiation.
    4) It covers what facilitates and hampers an effective negotiation.

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