Using Negotiation Role Plays in the English Classroom

Dale Coulter and David Wilson list and describe the five essential characteristics of a successful negotiation role play

Roleplay has always been a particularly effective way of giving practice to learners of English-speaking skills in a classroom setting. Roleplay can encourage fluency at the same time as forcing learners to attend to the meaning of their message. Somewhat paradoxically, role play provides some learners with a psychologically safe space. It enables them to play a third-person identity. It also provides learning activities that are practised meaningfully in context and relate strongly to learners’ jobs. Why? Because they are acting themselves. In other words, it’s a spectrum, with a roleplay on one end and a simulation on the other. Whether you fall more on one side or the other, a roleplay can be an engaging and highly effective way of practising negotiation skills.

Rewarding as it may be, replicating the complexity of authentic negotiation tasks throws up a number of challenges for learners and trainers to overcome.

  1. Lack of knowledge of the negotiating context leaners find themselves in 
  2. Complex and confusing roles
  3. Various language abilities in the group
  4. Challenging classroom management 
  5. Making learning more meaningful in the learner’s eyes by linking it to their job.

If well-handled, negotiation roleplay will be perceived as an extremely useful and relevant activity for learners in their everyday work. So, let’s examine the ideal criteria for running a successful negotiation roleplay.

Adding the Business Reality 

Part of the challenge of designing with authenticity in mind is getting caught up in detail. How long would participants wait to talk about pricing? When are proposals or counter-proposals made? Are these realistic prices and volumes? Would a supplier really act in this way? The further down the rabbit hole, the more complex the roleplay becomes. So, instead of applying a bottom-up or details-first approach to building the business context in your negotiation, consider the value of taking something such as a company value as a starting point. For instance, a company’s value may be to treat all stakeholders, internally and externally, with equal respect.

After that, it’s about working down the pyramid, through interpersonal and professional communication skills down to language skills, identifying the relevant skills at each step of the pyramid. The result is a simple tool to check the sense of your context and design your tasks, without getting caught up in the small details. In other words, it matters less that a learner doesn’t negotiate with a chain of car dealers. What matters more is that relevant skills receive practice. The aim of the roleplay is to provide practice in the competencies in order to achieve a company goal or live a company value, rather than try to simulate a highly complex and changing business reality that trainers may have limited or zero access to.

Tip: use company websites or presentations on SlideShare to identify goals and values to inform the design of a roleplays. 

Documenting Roles Clearly 

Each role should have its own separate briefing paper. Here the role should be clearly but briefly described, and some background to the negotiation should be given. It can be helpful to have a separate section highlighting any complications which exist, and which give rise to the need for the negotiation in the first place. Basically, this is the story of everything before the negotiation.

The role briefs require information on interests and preferred outcomes of the negotiation. Interests inform the learner’s choices of language and behaviour during the roleplay. These should be clearly enumerated (three is probably the best number) and ranked in order of preference: 1 – least desirable and three most desirable. The context here is key, so the preferences should reflect the higher-level company value or goal.

Logically ordering the information in brief, including headings, sub-headings, and bullets, greatly increases their chances of connecting with the context and their roles, so they can focus their attention on the language output. The language should be as simple as possible – with the learners addressed directly in the second person where relevant. Technical words or jargon receive definitions or translations where appropriate, and the brief clearly outlines the situation of the negotiation, the skills it practises, and why they are significant.

Crucial to the success of a negotiation roleplay are the materials distributed as input to the activity. These are usually paper handouts with facts and figures, but can also be a PowerPoint slideshow, or a presentation to be listened to.

Tip: create a template document for roleplays, so they follow the same structure. 

Tip: swot up on the Harvard Approach for more information about interests in negotiations. 

Scaffolding Mixed Levels 

Few business English language learning environments and even fewer authentic environments pair learners with the same level of competence. Providing opportunities for all learners to achieve the outcomes of the roleplay, regardless of their level, requires careful consideration of pairings, classroom management, and scaffolding.

  • Negotiation team members should be encouraged to help each other understand the briefing documents as well as prepare their own positions and anticipate the positions of their negotiating partners. Let’s say there’s a partner A and a partner B, As and Bs can prepare to together, teams can consist of one A or two As. 
  • Offer learners the opportunity to use ‘time outs’ during the negotiation. The more time to craft a message, the better it will be. 
  • Ideally, higher levels of language competency can be matched with lower levels.

Tip: clarify in advance if there are break-out rooms available for learners to brief about the negotiation 

Tip: provide the materials a day in advance or a week in advance

Setting it up 

Brief the negotiating teams together on the procedure for preparing and running the negotiation. Preparation times should ideally be flexible, but guidelines should be given in terms of the maximum time allowed both for preparation and the actual negotiation. In the context of a 3-5-day workshop, a one-hour maximum is usually enough for team preparation. The negotiation itself can last anything from 25 to a maximum of 45 minutes. 

Before the day

  1. Read and internalise the negotiation context and roles or roleplay it with colleagues beforehand
  2. Give each negotiation group time to clarify and ask questions with the trainer 

On the day

  1. State the linguistic, soft skill and goal or value outcome of the negotiation 
  2. Arrange seating in circular or horseshoe (collaborative – encouraged) or facing (adversarial – more challenging)
  3. Allow time for groups to debrief on how well they achieved their outcome. Encourage them to ask themselves the questions Why? or Why not? 

Tip: get creative with how you run the negotiations. Run each group with peers seated in a circle around and encourage feedback, video sessions and send the recording to learners to analyse and use as a basis for debriefing. 

Bridging Learning and Performance 

After the roleplay, allow time for groups to feedback to each other before the trainer provides feedback. The purpose of this stage is to unpack the negotiation, reflect on performance, and crystallise those reflections into post-training actions. Questions to use could be similar to: 

  • How well did learners achieve their goals in the negotiation? What did they do to enable this? If not, what could they do differently? 
  • If the outcomes of the negotiation were not met, what positive steps could lead to a successful outcome in the future?
  • What learning do they need to remember the next time they are in a negotiation in English?

The end of the roleplay is also a chance to gather feedback on the process and materials. It also allows the trainer an opportunity to link learners’ experiences with the organisational goals the roleplay is designed around.

Tip: It’s not unusual for some learners to comment that the negotiation did not totally reflect their reality. Reframe these comments in the practice of linguistic, professional communication, and interpersonal skills that the roleplay provides and encourage reflection on the transferability of these skills to the workplace.

If properly set up and carefully implemented, negotiation roleplay can be one of the most stimulating activities on a Business English course for both participants and trainers. Participants can be encouraged to carry over the kind of reflection they make at the feedback stage of a roleplay into their real-life negotiations. Then classroom experience can truly be said to be training for life

© 2020  Dale Coulter is a director of York Associates UK as well as a materials writer and trainer. 

© 2020 David Wilson is an associate trainer with York Associates.

They both have considerable experience in preparing and delivering courses in English for Occupational Purposes to a wide range of international corporate clients.

Annex

Treat all stakeholders, internally and externally with equal respect.
Active listening, conflict management, persuasion
Taking part in negotiations 
Asking questions, summarising, showing understanding, presenting facts and data