Tug of War: How to Approach Critical Conversations


Learners play a round of tug of war to better understand empathy and communication, two skills essential for healthcare professionals.

Introduction: This short activity was used while teaching learners in the healthcare professionals conflict management.

Goals: Help learners understand the value of finding common ground in difficult conversations. It was also meant to help learners appreciate how the other person approaches the conversation.

Procedure - Before Class: The instructor prepared pieces of rope/twine that were ~2 feet long. Learners were asked to stand and hold the rope taut in between them. They are then told that they will be given 15 seconds to attempt to move the rope closer to their side. Each time they successfully do this, they will receive one point. Learners are instructed to track how many points they earn in the 15 seconds.

Procedure - During Class: The learners play tug of war for 15 seconds and keep track of their score.

Procedure - After Class: After the 15 seconds, the instructor polls learners to identify how many people received zero points, one point, and so on. The instructor then leads a discussion with three main areas of discussion.

  1. Begin by asking how learners who received 3 points or less approached the game – was it with a win/lose mentality? What were their assumptions about how the other person approached the game?
  2. Some learners may have upwards of 10 points. These pairs have figured out that by working together, they can quickly move the rope back and forth between them so that each of them can score a greater number of points. Ask these teams how they made this choice? How did they approach the game? If no learners figured out this ‘winning’ strategy, role-play this scenario and discuss the outcome with learners.
  3. End the activity with a discussion that critical conversation is a two-way street and that there can be multiple ‘winners’ in conflict resolution.