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Multilateral negotiations as a forum for student role play

In his paper Darren Calley (University of Essex) described a series of student workshops which have proved successful in getting first year students to participate in class.

The session was blogged on Zeugma.

Can role play in a slightly less formal than normal environment have a positive impact on student participation in classes? The School of Law at Essex is attempting to identify a tangible link between role play and participation in class, drawing on the experience of trials conducted over the course of spring/summer 2008.


In the late spring of 2008 the law school was contacted by a management training company interested in trying out their latest training methods on our undergraduate students. Seeing a potential benefit for the law school, the head of school agreed and asked me to facilitate the events.

The potential benefit to the law school was that students would be given the opportunity, as part of their legal skills module, to develop negotiation skills in a way that slightly differed from the ‘usual’ bipartite negotiation competitions and training.. In the past we have positively encouraged and supported our student law society to run ‘standard form’ negotiations – two teams of two attempting to settle a dispute – which have been very successful as an extracurricular activity, however neither the law school nor the law society had ever before considered the more ‘round table’ type of negotiation described by the training company.

The negotiation sessions

The sessions would take place over three hours. For each session a reasonable sized room was required – ideally dressed for the occasion, with sufficient room to have a circular table seating the dozen or more participants comfortably. There should also be sufficient space in the room for all participants to move around freely when away from the negotiation table, with hot and cold drinks provided. The ‘free space’ and drinks areas were to prove to be of significance as the sessions progressed.

It was felt important by the training company that, insofar as was possible, the student participants did not know each other too well prior to the sessions. Thus all the volunteers were randomly allocated to groups to ensure there were no cliques.

The sessions were to be conducted by one of the company’s trainers, who began the workshop with some initially alarming ‘getting to know each other’ games. These involved all participants standing in a circle and introducing themselves to the others. Mere names, however, were not sufficient – the participants were required to prefix their names with an alliterative epithet.

What followed may be common in management training sessions, but in the confines of an undergraduate law course, it did seem a little bizarre. One participant was required to stand in the centre of the circle and was the ‘zombie’. The zombie would then, arms outstretched in best zombie fashion, proceed to ‘attack’ any given member of the assemblage. The ‘victim’ would then have to make eye contact with another member of the circle who, in order to save the victim from their fate, would have to call out their name and alliterative epithet. If saved the victim would then remain in the circle and then zombie would then move to another victim…the zombie would be replaced in the centre of the circle until their victim was not saved by having their name called out. This process was repeated several times until it became apparent the all participants were sufficiently familiar with each others’ names and the trainer felt that the ice was sufficiently well broken.

Underlying this odd game was an additional subtext. By observing each participant’s reaction and level of involvement in the game (either reticent or outgoing, able to recall names instantly or forgetful of names) the trainer was able to allocate key roles within the main session.

These key roles were the chair, the rapporteur and the ‘spoiler’. In addition, each participant was allocated a predetermined character – for example the representative of the Central Bank of Slovenia, or France, or Greece. Each player was given a brief of what was expected from the negotiations. Because of the numbers of participants it was necessary to ‘team up’, with two students representing each of the six nations.

The aim of the negotiations was first to arrive at a decision as to where the new headquarters of the Central European Super Bank would be. As well as attempting to convince all fellow delegates that their own country would best house the headquarters of the bank, each delegate had a list of fall back criteria to be achieved. These would typically take the form of preferred alternative locations (based on geographical contiguity to their own country, transport links, onsite facilities, budgetary constraints, etc) and alternative locations that should be avoided at all costs (again for reasons of geography, or seemingly more usually politics…for instance, the Bank of England representative would be told that on no account must the bank be located in France. The name given to the bank’s headquarters was also important. Some delegates were given strong briefs on this matter, whilst others were told it was entirely unimportant and could be used as a bargaining chip.

The participants were given 10-20 minutes to familiarise themselves with their roles whilst the trainer briefed the chair and rapporteur as to what was expected. The chair had previously have been identified as a particularly organised and forceful individual, capable of controlling the discussions, while the rapporteur’s skills had previously have been identified as diligence, alertness and an ability to take a back seat without being marginalised.

The ‘spoiler’, chosen as an extrovert who would be prepared to throw the occasional spanner into the works of the session, was added to test the ability of the participants to remain focused and calm in the face of disruption. They were briefed in secret by the trainer as to what was expected, and no one other than the trainer and the spoiler themselves knew that they had any role other than that of ordinary delegate.

After a sufficient length of time had elapsed for the delegates to become familiar with their characters the first round of negotiations began. This took the form of formal introductions by the chair, with each delegate giving a five minute presentation on the case for their country, followed by opportunities for questions from other delegates.

Following this hour long session a mid-sessional break was scheduled, with participants moving to the refreshment area. They were discouraged from leaving the room other than for a call of nature or cigarette break, as the trainer wished to encourage discussion during the break. The idea behind this was the forming of alliances. It had already become apparent that the participants were beginning to recognise that certain countries had common concerns, or had bargaining chips to be used in later negotiations. The ‘coffee break diplomacy’ aspect to the session, would, it was hoped, allow for these alliances to be forged. The participants had previously been warned of the danger of obstinately fixating on getting their own county’s proposal carried at the risk of everything else. Whilst this was the primary goal it had to be done carefully so as to avoid polarisation and marginalisation within the group. Thus, the coffee break was an opportunity to trade off, informally, with other delegates.

The second round of negotiations then commenced, with the chair asking for a secret vote to reduce the number of possible locations from six to three, with a similar reduction in possible names for the headquarters. Once culled, a further half hour discussion took place before a final vote of location and name was undertaken.

The results

Whilst the above game was of tremendous importance in terms of acting as a vehicle for the exercise it soon became apparent that the students were getting more out of it than had initially been expected. They had undoubtedly developed their negotiation skills, and the trainer was impressed by the way the negotiations wound up to a conclusion. What was more noticeable, however, was the manner in which the participants grew into their roles throughout the sessions and properly contributed to the outcome.

From the initial reticence of many participants (all of whom were first years) emerged outgoing and participatory individuals. Unlike many such group discussions – the obvious example being seminars and tutorials – when, often, 50 minutes of ‘forced’ discussion takes place, followed by audible sighs of relief and a bolt for the door, the participants in these sessions bonded in their groups, engaged in the subject and appeared to thoroughly enjoy the sessions.

This was a most positive outcome, one we had not initially expected, which has caused me to consider expanding on this trial project to include all first years rather than just 50 or so volunteers. It is hoped that after sessions such as this students will realise there is much to be gained from making positive contributions in class, and that speaking out in public, offering opinions and listening to responses is nothing to be feared. After breaking the ice in this manner it is to be hoped that traditional group discussion classes would hold no fear for students.

The pitfalls

Clearly there are at least two or three obvious pitfalls to be borne in mind when rolling out the project to an intake of 280 students. First, and most obvious, is the logistical challenge. Such an endeavour would require at least 20 separate classes to be run (following the format of two delegates per country). Each class would need at least four hours of room booking at one of the busiest period in the academic calendar. Given a basic level of contact time necessary (80 hours!) it would be very difficult for one individual to facilitate the events, and so it would be essential that a team of facilitators was in place.

Secondly, the results gleaned from the trial may be artificial. As stated, the most encouraging aspect of the sessions was the level of participation. Although each session began in fairly predictable fashion – students staring at the desk, pen in hand hoping that they would not be singled out for questions, the sessions ended with all students having thoroughly contributed. Rather than a miracle transformation this could be more easily explained as follows. All the student participants were volunteers, who may by the sort of person who, as the sort of person who routinely volunteers, is always going to contribute once any initial lack of familiarity with the format has been overcome.

A third potential pitfall is any assumption of transfer of any new found confidence from the relatively light hearted atmosphere of these training sessions to the confines of the tutorial or seminar room when dealing with the less inclusive principles of core law learning. Just because students participated once does not necessarily mean that every cold Monday morning from October until March they will attend their contract or land law seminars with the same degree of enthusiasm.


As an exercise these sessions were very informative, and have given us a degree of food for thought. Whilst we will almost certainly not be able to make the the sessions a mandatory part of the legal skills curriculum, due to the logistical problems, we do hope to offer them again, increasing participation from around 50 students to around 100.

Diane Wragg (University of Gloucestershire) reports:

Darren gave an account of a negotiations exercise aimed at developing students’ confidence in role playing and contributing in class.
A training company had approached the university to test run some new materials. The scenario in this case consisted of a plan to set up a new European Central Bank. Each pair of students represented a particular European country negotiating to (ideally) have the bank in their own country, failing which in other countries in order of priority – for example, we want it in England; if not then in Belgium; under no circumstances will we agree to it being in France. There was time out from the negotiating table to build ‘alliances’ with other countries for voting purposes.
Anecdotally, the students enjoyed the exercise and felt they had benefited, but it had not yet been possible to evaluate whether it had actually improved performance in class. It is intended to repeat the exercise next year with greater numbers, but it is logistically difficult to room/timetable.
Participants considered the exercise useful, particularly for first year students in induction or at the beginning of their first semester.

About Darren

Darren Calley is a lecturer in the School of Law at Essex. He is co-ordinator of legal skills, course director of tort and occasional lecturer in contract, public international law and the law of the marine environment (which formed the basis of his PhD).
Darren researches and publishes on animal welfare law.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010