The Chairs Game

Aim, purpose, goal
The chairs game provides a dramatic game experience for participants that can be used for several purposes:

  1. To explore conflict and what helps or hinder conflict resolution
  2. To explore leadership
  3. To explore Action Learning – the reflecting on and learning from the experience of the game can itself be used as an introduction to Action Learning. Can be used in conjunction with the Action Learning Guiding Questions on page 110 of BFG1.

What do you need:
A medium to large room with only chairs (at least 1 per participant)
A note for each participant:

  1. 1/3 of the notes should state “Put all the chairs by the window” (or the notice-board or flower pot… ie whatever is at the one end of the room)
  2. 1/3 of the notes should state “Put all the chairs in the middle of the room”
  3. 1/3 of the notes should state “Put all the chairs by the door” (or whatever is at the other end of the room)

Facilitators experience
Medium experience depending on how far the exercise is unpacked. The ability not to intervene when participants get frustrated with the game is important.
Steps (describe the structure of the tool)

  1. Begin with participants sitting on their chairs in a circle.
  2. Say: “I am going to hand you a note. You have three instructions: Complete the task written on the note. Do not show the note to anyone. Do not hurt anyone.
  3. Hand out the notes. Answer any questions and tell them to begin.
  4. Let the game proceed without interrupting, unless people get “over-enthusiastic” and look like they might hurt each other (Note: having run this game dozens of times only once did someone hurt themselves when they fell trying to pull a chair away from someone else.)
  5. When the group has carried out all three tasks you can declare them all winners.
  6. At this point you can facilitate the debriefing of the game. One way that works well is to use the Action Learning Guiding Questions (Page 110 of the BFG1) to guide their discussion.
  7. Ask them to pay particular attention to the reflection questions, especially the one that asks them about the assumptions they made.
  8. You could divide them into reflection/learning groups and then hold a larger group sharing.
  9. Keep in mind you objectives for guiding the discussion.

Examples (how the tool is used in practice)
The game usually stalls at some point with three camps all guarding the chairs they managed to grab. They will then look at you, saying “What now?” Just remind them that they have not completed the task (ie ALL the chairs must go to the three places).
Don’t engage any more than this. Let them figure it out.
Sooner or later one or two of them will see that they can solve the problem by taking all the chairs to each of the three places in turn – it does not say “Keep” the chairs in any place. But having had a struggle to the chairs means that there is not necessary the trust in the group that will enable the clever solution to be bought by all. This will take some time. Observe.