Tim Hedeen: Good and Easy Class Exercise

OFOI Tim Hedeen described the following class exercise about the nature of negotiation, which can easily be adapted in many ways.  (If you want to give students even more of a run for their money, you might assign students to read the short piece on the definition of negotiation that Andrea Schneider, Noam Ebner, David Matz, and I wrote).

Here’s Tim:

While students in my International Negotiation course have yet to partake of any Stone Soup, today they engaged in an organic, locally-sourced side dish.  I offer the following reflections on a classroom exercise, in case others might adapt it to their work.

Our assigned readings for the week were Terence Hopmann’s chapter “Bargaining and Problem Solving: Two Perspectives on International Negotiation” (from the USIP book Turbulent Peace, 2001) and the first three chapters of Roy Lewicki and partners’ Negotiation text, which respectively introduce negotiation generally, distributively, and integratively.

I designed an exercise to bring to life some fundamental elements of negotiation—communication, interdependence, offers, agreements; to practice the discipline of presenting arcane or complex information in accessible language; and to ensure students’ understanding of the class materials.

The exercise itself

Using the think-pair-share approach to classroom discussion, I provided each student a worksheet with three questions, with instructions to complete all three in twenty minutes:

  1. Define negotiation (and/or distinguish it from other forms of interaction) in a sentence or two.
  2. How would you explain bargaining or distributive negotiation to someone who’s unfamiliar with this field? Seek to do so in no more than three sentences.
  3. How would you similarly explain problem-solving or integrative negotiation?

Then I asked them to convene in small groups (of perhaps three or four), and in a half-hour to seek to develop a consensus response for each of the three prompts.  If they reached consensus on a response, they recorded such on the back of the page; if they did not, they were to identify the ‘sticking points’ preventing consensus.

The exercise’s last twenty-minute stage involved going around the room to hear any consensus responses to the first prompt (defining negotiation).  After hearing them all, students were invited to declare which definition they preferred and to explain why they preferred it. Following any declarations/explanations, there would be a vote—one person, one vote—to determine the group’s preference.  We’d repeat this process for the second and third prompts (on distributive and integrative approaches).

That was the plan, at least, for the last stage.  What happened instead was that a student adopted the role of scribe/facilitator, in which she recorded consensus responses on a flip chart and after all had been offered, she identified points of agreement among.  Like a mediator, she assisted the group to come to yet another consensus; thus no voting was ever conducted.

The exercise debrief

I closed the exercise the way I conclude most in-class experiences, with three short invitations: their thoughts about the exercise, their feelings about it, and their ideas about how it was related to our course lessons (as doctoral students, they’re motivated discussants in matters of teaching and learning). To say their responses were both thoughtful and enthusiastic would be an understatement.

As hoped, they recognized the major elements of negotiation, and they noted both the integrative/cooperative tone of the consensus-seeking discussions in the small groups, as well as the distributive/competitive slant that would have marked any vote-rallying endorsements in the full group. Many observed the parallels between this exercise and their experiences in law offices, human rights organizations, military contexts, and elsewhere, and found the exercise a useful application of dispute resolution skills. The student who adopted a facilitator’s stance reflected that the role demanded that she practice the language of impartiality; others noted its utility to the endeavor.

When we turned to how they felt, students were similarly reflective. One spoke of his frustration that his initial “wonderful definition and explanations” were altered on the way to consensus, and also of his pride in the group’s eventual products. Another shared her amazement at how she had greatly underestimated both the time required to develop concise responses, as well as the time involved in dialogue toward consensus. Yet another commented on how satisfied he was to see the group work collaboratively, while a classmate explained her appreciation for the group’s patient and supportive demeanor. That a few mentioned “feeling heard” was easily connected to the previous week’s discussion of procedural justice.

We wrapped up discussing the educational functions of the exercise, and I was heartened that students identified most all of my interests in designing it. And they went further: they reported that they gained a better sense of each other’s perspectives and interests, they felt a greater sense of group cohesion. They noted that it reinforced my admonition to keep up with the readings, as this exercise relied heavily on informed participation. I shared my minor disappointment that there hadn’t been any voting, as I’d hoped to explore how voting can divide a group; I think my disappointment only strengthened their cohesion.

I’m a fan of interactive, cooperative, and applied learning, just as I’m a fan of sharing experiences—thus my admiration for the Indisputably blog and the Stone Soup project. I wish everyone an enjoyable spring semester!


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