Harvard trip report: my professional pilgrimage

For many, the opportunity to study at Harvard University is a dream come true – like seeing the Northern Lights or swimming with a whale shark. (Or not.)

In June, I had the good fortune to spend two weeks at the Harvard Negotiation Institute, attending intensive negotiation workshops led by acclaimed experts Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone.

My expectations were extremely high.

After all, it was a similar journey that led CMA’s founder, Eliezer Kornhauser, to establish CMA in Australia 21 years ago, with the support of key faculty members from the Harvard Negotiation Project. So, for me, the trip was more than just a career-defining professional development opportunity. It was a ‘professional pilgrimage’; an opportunity to imbibe the material directly from the source.

And my expectations were exceeded.

I’d like to share three lessons that made the greatest impression on me. The first two were expected. The third one surprised me.

Lesson #1 – Your process determines your outcome

This may seem obvious, and yet I’ve seen plenty of experienced negotiators in complex, high-value transactions go to the table with little more than their ‘opening offer’, their ‘bottom line’, and their list of so-called ‘non-negotiables’. (I used to be one of those negotiators.)

The actual process of negotiation was left to chance.

To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t care where you want to get to, it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Effective negotiators carefully plan their journey in advance.

They use a robust negotiation framework, such as Harvard’s ‘7 Elements of Negotiation’, to create a map of the complex terrain they are about to navigate.

But preparation is not enough. We must also be scanning the horizon for roadblocks and developing the skills to manage them if and when they do arise.

Too often, we take a ‘wait and see’ approach to negotiation that creates what Bruce Patton calls a “predictable tragedy”. We leave it up to our counterpart to make the first move and set the tone for the negotiation.

So once you’ve created a robust process, be prepared to be flexible. You can do this by continuously asking yourself:

What could I do, at little or no risk, that would improve the chance of a creating a positive interaction or avoiding a negative one?

Lesson #2 – Your assumptions shape your process

One of the hallmarks of CMA’s workshops is that we strive to challenge – and, in many cases, shift – participants’ assumptions about how they approach negotiation.

As American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes put it:

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

The nature of those assumptions can vary considerably.

One of the most fundamental shifts that Harvard’s and CMA’s workshops promote is from a competitive or combative approach to one that is more collaborative.

For most participants, it is refreshing – even a relief – to know that you can be authentic and ethical in a negotiation without compromising on the outcome. Rather, you can create even better outcomes – what some refer to as ‘deal optimisation’ – by being more collaborative.

Harvard training room

Bruce Patton leading a plenary session

This shift was clearly evident during the first week at Harvard. When I asked members of my working group to reflect on their biggest lesson, Toan Do replied:

“I am a changed man! I used to think that negotiating was only about winning at all cost. I realize that negotiation is about creating deal value. The way to create is to understand the other party’s interest and not just their position. 

“In fact this morning I was working through a 7 step negotiation rehearsal and I realized that MY team was focused on a position and not their interest. In fact we didn’t even know their interest. So instead of going back to argue the same point, I sent my rep to find out their interest and how we could create options for mutual gain.”  

Despite being a ‘collaboration convert’ myself, I too experienced a version of this shift over the two weeks. While I promote and practice collaborative negotiation for a living, I discovered that I was still harbouring some doubts about how this approach was perceived by others who might be inclined to adopt a more aggressive or even underhanded approach.

Is there a risk that I will be seen as ‘soft’? And, if so, does this matter?

In one negotiation, I was paired up with a participant to negotiate the sale of some valuable books and memorabilia. Being acutely aware of the limitations of ‘haggling’, I suggested that we use objective standards to negotiate the sale price. Once we reached an agreement, my counterpart promptly announced with delight, “I completely screwed you over!”

For a moment, I was shocked. My counterpart then revealed that he had sold the books to me for some $30,000 more than his ‘bottom line’. I, in turn, revealed that I had purchased the books for about $30,000 less than my upper limit!  It was a moment of truth for both of us. Moreover, because we had used objective standards to negotiate the outcome, I felt confident that we’d reached a fair and wise agreement, despite my counterpart’s insistence to the contrary.

This and other experiences reminded me to prepare thoroughly on the objective standards (also known as ‘legitimacy’ or ‘criteria’), so I could be collaborative without a fear of being ‘taken’. In Getting to Yes, this is called being “soft on the person, but hard on the issue”.

What assumptions do you have about negotiation? Which ones are limiting? How can you make them more empowering?

Lesson #3 – Your assumptions are influenced by your ‘negotiation identity’ 

On our first day, we were asked to describe our ‘negotiation spirit animal’.

At first, this seemed like a quirky icebreaker activity, but it turned out to have a deeper significance. As we shared our spirit animals with the group, we were not only learning more about our counterparts (a self-described ‘snake’ garnered a few raised eyebrows) – we were also forced to confront our own perceptions of how we negotiated with others.

Why is this important?

We are negotiating all the time. So the way we negotiate can say a lot about who we are as people and how we feel about ourselves when we negotiate. In the process of characterising ourselves as animals, we had to think deeply about the beliefs, thinking and behaviour we bring to negotiations.

I would say now that my negotiation spirit animal is a dog – friendly, trusting and accommodating, yet keenly aware of boundaries and somewhat protective of my master’s (family’s, employer’s, etc) interests. Perhaps the downside of this is being too fixated on certain issues – like a ‘dog with a bone’.

Maybe the notion of a ‘spirit animal’ doesn’t resonate with you. So what we’re really talking about here are archetypes.

In Jungian psychology, an archetype is an idea or image that symbolises a set of characteristics. For example, if I were to refer to a ‘mother’, most people could describe a set of associated characteristics – for example, loving, nurturing, protective, and so on.

In traditional negotiation culture, common archetypes might be that of the ‘warrior’ or the ‘trickster’. But perhaps we could develop a more effective negotiation style by adopting a more positive archetype. For example, the ‘alchemist’ – a person who transforms elements into something of value.

The idea that my approach to negotiation embodied more than a process and assumptions, but was also a key component of my identity, allowed me to see how negotiation fit into the rest of my life – and why it was so important.

What is your negotiation archetype? And what does it say about how you approach negotiation?

Harvard* * *

Most importantly, what I learned at Harvard is this:

Great negotiation theory is comprehensive, adaptable and timeless 

It has been almost 35 years since Getting to Yes was first published. Many experts have expanded on its theory, but we are yet to come across anything as immediately practical and universal as the 7 Elements framework.

So perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is an unashamedly self-serving one – that CMA’s commitment to robust and practical negotiation theory is one worth keeping.

To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.”

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