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Contextualization is the Most Important Skill Model UN Can Teach You

The Model UN delegate: a person of intellect; a person of energy, confidence, willpower. Ideally, the delegate has all of these skills professionally honed. They can turn to their notes quick as a flash to counter their opponents or expertly craft an outline for their bloc’s working paper. The Model UN delegate is someone who thinks hard and talks fast: clever, quick, and articulate. 

Typically, you can divide these traits into two primary groups: analytical and social. Analytical skills are those that contribute to committee analysis. Think of research skills, memorization, and critical thinking. Social skills are those that aid the delegate in behaving well during committee: speaking boldly and confidently, practicing proper bloc dynamics, embodying charisma, and radiating collaborative energy while maintaining a competitive strategy simultaneously. By combining the elements of these skills, delegates are better able to perform in committee.

But among these skills— analytical and social— the delegate must also adopt another; one which fits into both schools of thought. This skill is contextualization, and it can make or break a delegate’s performance during committee.

Contextualization, in this case, is the ability for a delegate to read a room and understand where they are. While some skills in committee are universal (i.e. parliamentary procedure, general speech delivery, and resolution writing/formatting), what matters most is that delegates consider the type of committee they are in, who they are interacting with, and what their goal is before deciding on a strategy in which analytical and social skills can be used towards the desired award.


Know Your Committee

Aside from an unofficial marker of difficulty, there is a reason that conferences typically divide their committees into three categories: General Assembly (GA), Specialized (or GA+), and Crisis (or advanced). This reason is that chairs expect varying strategies depending on the committee type. For a General Assembly, expect to use more barebones strategies: chairs are expecting proper use of research and typically reward those that embody a collaborative strategy while maintaining efficiency and staying true to the assigned country’s position. Crisis committees tend to award those who are extremely well-researched in a very specific, concentrated area of study: detail matters a lot, particularly since these committees demand creativity on top of all else. 

This makes specialized the most possible the be a grab-bag of possibilities. More often than not, specialized committees are referred to as ‘Crisis-Lites’, which indicates the propensity of chairs to drop a spontaneous crisis into committee. If you’re in the UN Environmental Programme, the fourth committee session out of seven might introduce an oil spill or a natural disaster. In this case, chairs are looking for the delegates who can take the best of both worlds: creativity and urgency in responding to crisis along with good old-fashioned big bloc lobbying and debate skills.

All of this is to say that the committee structure has a major influence on how you choose to play your cards.


Know Your Community

While committee structure is something that can be understood ahead of time through research, the people who will make up your committee is something you won’t become familiar with until the first committee session. This makes it all the more important to pay close attention. 

In this case, I’m not referring to just knowing the types of people to expect in committee. Yes, know the power delegate, the research-oriented kid with a 50-page binder, and the guy who is getting way too into character as an eighteenth-century Revolutionary general. More important than those roles, though, is understanding the general energy of the committee and considering how your behavior in committee can best take advantage of it. Depending on a variety of factors, simple actions can become big decisions.

Take the simple act of note-passing into consideration. What’s the size of the committee? If the committee is larger, note-passing will be a must; while if the committee is smaller, note-passing might be relegated to the back-burner while you focus on convincing people in-person during unmoderated caucuses. Now, what countries are present? If you are in the UN Security Council as a P5 nation, focus on keeping smaller powers you would realistically ally with happy: appease as much as you can. If you are in the UN Security Council as a non-P5 power, your notes are your means to round up under-the-table alliances with your fellow non-P5ers. Thus, not only does the structure of your committee matter, but it must inform your relationship with others around you.

Every skill in Model United Nations can be adjusted to fit the needs of the time.

As long as you are considering your committee and the community within, you can adapt foundational skills of Model UN–public speaking, lobbying for votes, bloc leadership, resolution writing–to any committee, any collection of delegates, any country or character assignment. 


Know Yourself

The art of contextualization is a matter of knowing the setting, the actors, but it’s also about knowing yourself. Knowing the ballpark and the players is important, but it means nothing if you don’t know how your own strengths and weaknesses play into the game. When you step up to the plate, will you really be able to hit the ball that far? Have you tried bunting before? The bases are loaded; will you be able to keep it together and ensure a victory for yourself and your team?

Analogies aside, you need to be intimately acquainted with your own Model UN skillset and where your strengths lie. Model UN is the grounds for people to really discover their traits and see real success in a controlled environment. But if you haven’t done something before, you need to see it as a test and be prepared for what happens when it doesn’t work out. Every time you try something new–a new cadence in a speech, a new bloc lobbying strategy, a different way of structuring clauses–remember that it is an opportunity to discover what works well with your personality and what doesn’t.

Progress demands not only a willingness to take risks, but also a deliberate attentiveness to the outcomes. 

Why do we do Model UN? For success, for popularity, for competition, sure. But many of us do it because we love seeing what comes out. We are thrust into a situation headfirst and, suit and tie aside, we are never truly ready for it. Prepare as best you can, and you will still enter that first committee session completely foreign to what the next few hours will bring. What Model UN teaches you, though, is to become comfortable with that unknown: to familiarize yourself with the feeling of uncertainty such that you can maintain the confidence necessary to adapt to unknown surroundings. The diversity of Model UN committees–the different structures, topics, chair preferences, and awards criteria–fosters an academic activity that demands adaptivity, flexibility, and a willingness to lean into the unknown. These are skills that characterize a strong delegate, sure; but more importantly, they characterize a strong person, in and out of the committee room. 

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