21 negotiating in English games
Summary: Games for presentation, intensive practice and freer practice of useful phrases for this most difficult and critical of Business English skills.
Negotiating well in another language is one of the most difficult skills, especially nowadays when it is often done by distance by videoconference, teleconference or email. It is also one of the most important things to do well, with usually a clear financial penalty for doing it badly.
To really master this skill, students need a thorough understanding of the very many phrases they might hear during a negotiation and an ability to show fine shades in meaning in their own contributions. For this, they need to closely examine the exact meaning of a great deal of language, get lots of controlled practice of the same kind of language, and then take part in more realistic but still intensive practice of negotiating to give them a chance to use all that language in context. Games are good for all three of those stages. 21 possibilities are presented below in that order.
Games for presenting negotiating language
- Negotiating language simplest responses game
Quite a lot of negotiating language can be divided into two opposing groups of phrases, e.g. starting and ending negotiations, insisting and softening your position, positive and negative, sure and unsure, commenting or getting the other person to comment, formal and informal, direct and indirect, and extending or trying to end a negotiation. I like to present this kind of language with one of my favourite games, which I call the Simplest Reponses Game.
Students are given cards which have the names of the two functions from the list above that you are presenting, e.g. a “Starting” card and an “Ending” card each. They race to hold up the right one depending on what they think about the functions of the phrases that they hear the teacher reading out. For example, with the “Insisting” and “Softening position” cards they can lift their cards in response to phrases like “I can’t give way on this” and “Perhaps, but only if…”. They can then label those phrases on a worksheet with the same categories and test each other in pairs or small groups in the same way. You then need to move onto helping them produce such language, perhaps by getting them to brainstorm phrases into subcategories like “setting conditions” and “explaining why you can’t move” and/ or getting them to help each other produce such sentences with hints such as key words.
You can also sometimes use this game with language divided into three categories, e.g. “Yes” and “No” with both cards up if the phrase means “Maybe”.
- Negotiation language list dictations
Another thing that you can do with phrases which have something in common is to read out a bunch of them until one student in the class works out what they have in common. As well as useful functions like “Suggesting compromises” and “Apologising”, students can also spot negotiating expressions based on the same metaphor (sport, war and poker being the most common), and phrases with the same word missing.
Students can then label the phrases in the same way on the worksheet and test each other in small groups in the same way, before perhaps brainstorming language to fit into other similar categories such as “giving reasons”.
- Negotiating longer phrases jigsaw game
Even more than other kinds of functional language, using negotiating phrases which say exactly what you want to say and have the right level of formality/ indirectness often involves using longer phrases. This game combines presenting short simple phrases with giving students the language they need to extend them to make them more polite and/ or precise in meaning.
To prepare a version of this game, start by collecting around 15 to 20 important negotiating phrases which have optional words in the middle such as “This point is (absolutely) crucial”, “According to our (previous) agreement,…” and “Actually, that is (basically) what we were suggesting”. Put the phrases into a three-column table in Word with the optional words and phrases in the middle column. Photocopy and cut up one set per group of two or three students, with the middle column cards divided from the others. Give students just the left-hand and right-hand column words to make basic phrases with (“This point is” + “crucial” etc), then give them the middle cards to check and expand on their answers. They can then use the same cards to prompt those or similar phrases during speaking in a game similar to the key words speaking game below.
- Negotiation conversations jigsaw texts
Write out the whole of a short negotiation such as extending the deadline for a project, then cut it into sections which students should put back together, something like a jigsaw puzzle. One good place to split the dialogue is before useful reactions to what people say such as “Great!” after “In that case, we accept your proposal” and “I’m sorry to hear that” after “I really don’t think we can move on this at all”. Another possibility is in the middle of useful collocations like “long” + “relationship” and “bulk” + “discount”.
Photocopy and cut up one copy per group of two or three students. After they have put it in order and checked their answers, they can then try to have similar conversations, perhaps starting while being able to see at least part of the conversation they have just put into order.
You can also do this with two dialogues mixed up together, for example one positive negotiation and one negative one, one formal one and one informal one, one telephone and one face-to-face one, or the initial negotiation with people meeting for the first time and a second or final negotiation with people who already know each other. Students should divide the two conversations up as they are putting them in order.
- Matching negotiating phrases and responses
This can be useful for all stages of the negotiation from small talk (“How’s business?” “Not too bad”) to finalising a deal (“Do we have a deal?” “We certainly do!”). However, simple one-to-one matching up like this is too boring and easy, meaning students don’t get involved enough in the activity for the language to stick. The best way round this is to prepare cards with three possible responses to each phrase, such as “I don’t think we can either”, “That’s a shame” and “Perhaps we can show some flexibility then” as replies to “I don’t think we can move on this”. Students work together to try to match up the phrases. After checking their answers, they can move onto testing each other orally and then building whole conversations around some of the exchanges.
- Negotiations dominoes
Another way of dealing with statements/ questions and responses is to prepare cards like dominoes that students can try to make a complete chain out of, with the responses on the left of each domino needing to be put next to the right phrase on the right of each domino. This game can also be played to present and practice the two important language points for negotiating of collocations (“That’s our last” + “offer”) and word formation (“I was expecting a bit more flexib” + “ility”). Actually playing the game of dominoes tends to waste too much time and need too much constant checking by the teacher, so instead nowadays I usually just get students to work together in small groups to make the whole circle out of the dominoes.
Games for intensive practice of specific kinds of negotiating language
Some of these games are only suitable for one particular language point such as giving reasons, while others could be adapted for one or more – or even almost all – the possible kinds of functional language that could come up in a negotiation.
- Negotiating coin games
Before responding to their partner’s proposal, students have to flip a coin and then respond positively if they get a head or negatively if they get a tail. This continues with every exchange until their reach an agreement. They should still try not to give too much away, only conceding very little when they get a head. This should also work with the sides of the coin meaning “Ask a question” (such as asking for clarification or “How about…?”) and “Make a statement”.
You can also do the opposite thing, with students flipping the coin but keeping what they get secret, then trying to get that response from their partner.
Some of the games below are basically the same as these games but without a coin.
- Use the negotiating phrases
This is the simplest game in this section and one of the most useful ones. Get groups of two to four students to deal out cards with one useful phrase on each one and then try to use those phrases during a roleplay negotiation. The person who has discarded most cards at the end of the negotiation wins the game. You’ll then need to test students’ memory of the phrases by getting them to brainstorm into categories like “Phrases for compromising”, perhaps with key words to help them. They can then move onto doing the same thing with names of functions or key words, as explained below.
- Negotiating functions card games
Students are dealt some cards with the names of functions on them like “Insist” and “Soften position” and/ or “Yes”, “No” and “Maybe”. During the speaking activity they must do those things with phrases not yet used in the game to be able to discard those cards. The other people can give them the cards back if they repeated a phrase that someone had already said or what they said doesn’t match the card that they discarded. The person who has successfully discarded most cards when the teacher says “Stop” is the winner.
You can also play this game without cutting up cards by students crossing “Yes” etc off a worksheet every time they successfully do that thing with original language.
As with the coin games above, you can also play the opposite game of trying to get the response on the card to be able to discard it, e.g. being able to get rid of an “Insist” card if they can make their partner stick to their position by offering something unacceptable.
For more of a challenge, both kinds of games can also be played with students taking cards from a pack one by one and only being able to take the next one when they have successfully discarded the one that they hold.
- Negotiating key words card games
Students are dealt cards with key words for making negotiating phrases on them such as “compromise” (for “I think I have a suitable compromise” etc) and “flexible” (for “I think we’ve already been quite flexible” etc). They must say phrases with those words in while they are negotiating in order to discard those cards. The person with fewest cards left at the end of the game wins. You can also include more than one of each card and tell they can’t discard the cards if they use a phrase that someone else has already said.
This game can be played for just one or two functions (e.g. different key words for making proposals), for a whole range of different phrases, or even all the suitable negotiating functions that you can think of.
- Single function negotiating competitions
Students compete to do a single thing more often than their partners during a negotiation, e.g. politely rejecting more often than the people that they are speaking to. You will probably also want to tell them to use different phrases to do that each time. Other functions that they can compete to do more times during a single conversation include:
- asking questions
- clarifying/ checking
- giving reasons
- making concessions
- moving the negotiation on
- talking about the future
- Longer and shorter meetings game
One student is told to get the meeting over with as quickly as possible and the other is told to try to extend it as much as possible. Although there are ways round it for very smart students, this probably won’t work if students can just give way straightaway, so you’ll need to give them backup positions that they can’t go below when they are negotiating. This game is useful for phrases for starting negotiations (small talk, getting down to business etc), moving things on, insisting or giving ground, and ending negotiations.
- Strictly timed negotiations
Students are given a time limit such as “Five minutes” and must try to make their negotiation last as close to exactly that time as they can. This game is good for language for starting and ending negotiations, as well as cutting down or stretching out the middle with counterproposals, compromises, etc.
To make it more challenging, you could make them do it without being able to see the time. To help them and force more practice of the suitable functional language you could write up and/ or shout out the stage of the meeting they should probably be at to finish exactly on time, e.g. holding up a flashcard saying “Get down to business” about 45 seconds into a ten-minute negotiation.
- Give reasons in negotiations game
Students are given situations which are very difficult to explain such as renegotiating a deal that was only signed yesterday and changing your mind after they accept your proposal. They must think of good enough reasons for those things that the other people will find acceptable. The situations can be chosen from a worksheet, taken from a pack of cards, or written by students to challenge their classmates. They can simply try to come up with reasons that the other people in their group accept, or actually roleplay a negotiation during which that comes up. You can then test on their memory of phrases for giving reasons such as “This is due to…”
- Negotiating to predict the response
Students try to predict if their partner’s response to what they say will be “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe”, maybe writing it down before they make their proposal and then showing their partner what they wrote after they get the response. The proposals can be made up by the person making them, made up using words on a worksheet like “renegotiate”, or just chosen from a worksheet or pack of cards. Students could then write similar proposals for other students to use in the same way like “How would you feel about us investing in your company as part of this deal?” Students can then be tested on phrases for making proposals and/ or saying yes, no and maybe.
- Negotiating expressions mimes
There are many phrases for negotiating which can be made easier to understand and more memorable by students miming them, mostly ones based on metaphors like “I’m going to lay all my cards on the table” and “This is a win-win solution”. One student should mime one from a list on a worksheet until their partner guesses what it is supposed to represent, probably while looking at the same worksheet unless they know all the phrases really well. After going through what might be suitable gestures as a class, they can then do the same thing with the person guessing trying to come up with the phrases from memory. They can then be tested on their memory of the phrases from different prompts such as key words and/ or categories to brainstorm into.
- Negotiating politeness competition game
Give students a list of phrases which are too impolite for negotiations that they are likely to take part in such as “No way” and “No? What about two dollars then?” After they work out that rudeness is the problem with all the phrases that they have been shown, they should choose one and take turns trying to make it more and more polite, e.g. from “No way” to “There’s no way I can accept that”, “I don’t see any way that I can accept that”, “I don’t really see any way that I can accept exactly what you have suggested”, etc, getting as silly as they like as long as it is more and more formal/ polite. When they can’t get any more formal, they should discuss which of those was actually the most useful.
When they finish the game, you could give them useful words for making phrases more polite such as “seem” and “not so” to add to those rude phrases to write better versions.
- Negotiating chains
Students take turns making conditional offers to try to make a huge and complicated chain of proposals such as “If you accept this price, we will offer you 60 days to pay” being followed by “If you offer us 60 days to pay, we’ll double our order, but we won’t accept the price unless you offer us sale or return”. If you want to turn it into a competition, they win if their partner gets confused about what offers have and haven’t been made, probably shown by contradicting themselves or offering the same thing twice.
Negotiating board games
- Negotiating meeting criteria board game
Students are given a board game of at least twenty squares with a situation on each like “(negotiate a) pay rise” and “extended payment terms”. Students work in groups of at least three and take part in negotiations on the topic of the square that they are on. As they are doing so the other people in the group tick criteria on the worksheet such as “Being polite” and “Suggesting compromises”. When they have finished the negotiation, the other students add up the number of ticks and that person can move that many squares forward on the board. The person who progresses round the board furthest when the teacher stops the game is the winner. Possible criteria include:
- small talk
- getting down to business
- insisting/ not changing your position
- softening your position/ changing your mind
- making suggestions/ suggesting compromises/ suggesting solutions
- trading/ linking offers and conditions
- moving the meeting on/ quickly coming to agreement/ not getting stuck on a point/ leaving decisions to later
- giving reasons
- using polite/ softening language
- being positive/ using positive language
- asking about their position
- mentioning future contact
- the right level of formality/ friendliness
- Negotiating functional language board game
This is a slight variation on the game above. Most of the criteria above are kinds of phrase which there are many possibilities for in a negotiation such as “How have you been?”, “Did you have any trouble finding us?” and “Is it your first time in London?” for small talk. If you cut down the number of categories to just these ones, students can get one tick for each phrase not yet used in the game that they use with one of those functions. That means they can get two or more ticks for one category as long as none of those phrases have been said before. This should hopefully push them to use the range of language that you have presented and come up with their own ideas.
- Negotiations journey board game
Most of the board games described in this article can also be set out as more of a “Negotiations Journey” with each square a step towards final agreement in the same order as when those stages would usually take place, starting with negotiating things like use of the meeting room and who from your company will attend in the first few squares. The last few squares could be things like negotiating the contract signing ceremony.
- Score the square negotiations game
This is another way of getting students to concentrate on expanding their functional language for negotiations, but this game lets them concentrate on one function at a time. Instead of situations in the squares, each one has a function like “small talk questions” and “delay decisions”. The person who is on that square can roleplay any negotiating situation they like and should try to do that thing as many times as possible during the negotiation, using different language each time. Their partner(s) will give them a point for each successful attempt during the speaking, then they can move that many squares. You might want to set a maximum number of squares such as six or ten, perhaps letting them stop speaking when they reach that number instead of getting to the end of each negotiation.
Freer (but still intensive) practice of negotiating in English
- Multiple negotiations game
Divide the class into at least three teams. It is okay to have one-person teams, but if larger teams are possible that will lead to more communication. Decide on one product that each group will want to buy, e.g. photocopiers, mechanical diggers and raw copper for team A, team B and team C respectively. The teams are also suppliers of all the other goods apart from the ones that they want to buy. Each team should play off the other teams from each other to get the best price from their suppliers while also selling their own goods without giving them away too cheaply. Students are usually specifically motivated by the set up not to need winners and losers, but if you want to score you could give points for:
- Getting something cheaper after a more expensive quote from another group
- Getting a group to offer something lower than their previous offer (with one point for each time)
- Getting a group to offer a higher price for your products than they originally did
- Agreeing to a price for your products which is less than 2% below your original quote
- Attaching conditions to the price (with one point for each condition)
- Getting other concessions (e.g. good payment terms, with one point for each concession)
To stop the other teams too quickly spotting what negotiating tactics are being used on them, you could give worksheets with different scoring criteria on them to the different teams.
This game needs to be done as emailing, telephoning and/ or videoconferencing practice, which is luckily very realistic for many students. Emailing can be done with real technology, with scraps of paper handed back and forth, or just with people saying what their emails would say. Emailing without speaking to each other is probably best, as all the other options allow other teams to listen in to what is being offered. If you have at least two rooms available, doing it with telephone messages being left for each other is also a great method.
- Everyday negotiations roleplays
Get students to negotiate situations which they come across every day but probably don’t negotiate during such as talking to the dustbin men or going to the post office. Ask them to negotiate something in each situation, with free choice about what that could be. You can get them to choose from the list of situations or choose randomly by picking a card or closing their eyes and pointing at the worksheet.
This activity is useful as a further challenge for students who usually have the same old negotiations all the time and need something to stretch them. It is also good as a way of making negotiations something that pre-experience students can imagine.
- Negotiations problems roleplays
Another way of adding some spice to negotiations is to add an element of difficulty such as one or both people not having the authority to actually make concessions or receiving a phone call halfway through the negotiation that changes the whole situation.
- Negotiating bluff
Get students to roleplay real life negotiations such as a new deal with a supplier, with their partner taking the other role. Give the person who is playing themselves five cards from a pack of cards marked “T” or “F” and ask them to place those cards face down on the table when they make true or false statements about their position such as “We were offered a cheaper price last week by another supplier” and “We’d lose money on it at that price”. When the negotiation finishes, the person who they were negotiating with tries to spot what the false statements were. You can then discuss their opinions on using honesty and dishonesty in negotiations.