Improv in the Negotiations Classroom Pays Off

Charity Scott's improvisation session

“Improv offers a fresh and highly engaging approach to fostering the key skills needed for effective negotiation and legal practice,” says Charity Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law, who incorporated improvisation into her Negotiations class.

When Professor Charity Scott explains her plans to incorporate improv techniques into her Negotiations course, students typically respond with skepticism and apprehension.

Improv Tactics

Charity Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law, shared these key improv skills, which she finds useful in developing as a lawyer and going through life:

  • Say “yes, and” — don’t block and deny; instead, accept and make a constructive contribution to the situation.
  • Be present –focus on the here-and-now, don’t get distracted by distractions.
  • Listen well – get out of your own head and into theirs.
  • Serve the scene – become whatever is needed, and make your counterpart look good.
  • Stay open-minded – let go of your assumptions or pre-judgments (especially if negative) about others or a situation.
  • Stay flexible – learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Tolerate uncertainty – you can’t control others’ behavior or events, only your responses and attitudes toward them.
  • Befriend your mistakes – take a bow and recover quickly; learn from them.
  • Stay positive – turn challenges into opportunities; people admire those who carry on with good grace and good humor.
  • Believe in yourself – you can do this!

“When she first told us about improv, I thought, ‘well, that’s different.’ I had no idea what to expect and did not understand how it could help me be a better negotiator,” said Jennie Diaz (J.D. ’15).

However, after a few exercises, the students realize Scott’s approach is improving their negotiation skills—and it’s fun.

“Business and medical schools have adopted improv methods to teach communication skills, leadership and teamwork,” said Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law. “Improv offers a fresh and highly engaging approach to fostering the key skills needed for effective negotiation and legal practice.”

Through various improv exercises, students learn to become better listeners, pay attention to the present moment and become more flexible and comfortable “outside their comfort zone.”

“Improv also taught me to redefine success,” Diaz said. “Improv has two goals: to entertain and to achieve something, such as telling a story. In negotiations, it is commonly taught to focus on interests and not positions. It is human nature to want to convince other that our own position is right. The improv exercises taught me that success was not about proving a point, it was about achieving a goal based on an interest.”

One improv exercise Scott uses is Sherriff, Bandit, Victim, which helps students understand that they can’t control what others are going to say and do, but they can prepare themselves to constructively engage in the situation. Students gather in groups of three and simultaneously pose as a sheriff, bandit or victim. If they choose the same pose, they have to adjust so everyone in the group is posed differently.

“Instead of getting bogged down in frustration when they can’t control how others are posing, they laughingly persist in adapting themselves until it works,” Scott said. “Negotiators constantly need to be on the lookout for what’s needed to serve in any given situation constructively. Lawyers often think the best negotiators refuse to budge from their position, but the best ones listen and observe well and adapt to the personalities of each individual negotiation scenario to move things forward.”

After students finish the various games, Scott has a debriefing, in which students reflect on the experiences and what they noticed doing the activities. The group then discusses the applications to professional and personal life.

Michael Baumrind (J.D. ’11) found the improv techniques helpful as he developed his negotiation style, but what he found most rewarding was applying them outside of the classroom.

“I remember having a minor disagreement with my husband, which could have definitely ballooned. Instead, I listened to his concerns and engaged in an open and free conversation that ultimately led to a quick and easy resolution,” he said. “Our negotiations class equipped me with the skills to resolve arguments, big and small, personal and professional. I rely on those skills often.”

As A. Dixon Revell (J.D. ’16) prepares for his role in a litigation practice after graduation, he credits Scott for helping provide a strong foundation for his career.

“The techniques helped me get out of my comfort zone, focus on reading someone else’s body language and learn to react to that other person on the spot,” he said. “All of these skills are very important in a real negotiation.”

While the improv activities are fun and invoke laughter, Scott’s purpose for using them is not simply for entertainment. She wants to motivate students to learn.

“Students get engaged in learning how the games make sense in terms of lawyering skill development,” Scott said. “It’s a different way to learn these important interpersonal and communication skills, and hopefully a better and more long-lasting one than typical didactic discussions of them. By allowing everyone to let down their hair, and their guard, I hope it might instill a more consistent professional self-image: they can be valued for who they are as real people and simultaneously can be fantastic lawyers.”

According to her students, Scott’s approach is quite successful.

“This course was refreshing and one that is applicable to every aspect of life from personal relationships to buying a car to dealing with clients and opposing counsel,” Diaz said. “Professor Scott has a wealth of information and really cares about her students. I am grateful to her for teaching the negotiations course and her approach in it. Her course taught me skills I will use for the rest of my life.”