Learning the Art of Negotiation

My interest in the topic of negotiations has grown exponentially over the years, stemming first from early childhood as I tried to comprehend why my father was walking in a picket line during labor negotiations for his job. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what labor negotiations meant, nor did I really grasp why this was such big news for our small town (and why footage of dad’s picket line kept replaying on the local news - I thought he was something of a celebrity!). Later, when my career in orchestra management began, I consumed as many articles and readings on the topic as I could, trying to comprehend the “why” of past contract negotiation difficulties between musicians and managements. During this time, I also provided various supporting roles in a handful of labor negotiation processes, gaining first-hand accounts of how difficult, tenuous, contentious, and personal these negotiations could be. After transitioning into higher education, I watched from the sidelines and had conversations with many involved individuals as orchestras across the nation (Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago, just to name a few) went through their own strikes or lockouts due to unresolved contract negotiations.

In trying to pull these thoughts and experiences together, I have been left questioning what a successful negotiation truly means. Often, I hear about negotiations only as they relate to labor disputes. These types of negotiations have incredible personal impact, given the contracts directly influence the working environment and earning potential of the individuals involved. Yet in reality, negotiations are a part of every day living. It might be negotiating with friends for where to eat; or perhaps it’s at a market, trying to bargain for a lower price of a particular item; or, of recent memory for me, attempting to negotiate a fair used car trade-in value with a salesman. Negotiations rely heavily on communications - yet therein lies the challenge. Those involved in the negotiation have a responsibility to share sufficient and honest information with the other party, yet often assumptions are made that the other party is not being truthful with the shared information. 

With all of these experiences and questions swirling, I enrolled in Coursera’s Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills course as my third class in the No Pay MBA program. Taught by University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business Professor George Siedel, this course provided insight into the fundamentals of negotiations. This course was also my first experience where the differences between online and classroom learning were illuminated.

This class had 8.5 hours of video lectures created by Professor Siedel. While the content of the lectures was quite informational (and nearly paralleled his book), the piece that was difficult as a student was the lack of actual practice. Whereas other courses have exercises during or at the end of each course module, this course had only one assignment, aside from the final exam. I can only venture to guess that in a traditional classroom, the practice of negotiation would happen during each class period. By virtue of having an online class, it becomes increasingly difficult to have predictable interactions among students. Yet why should this preclude a MOOC instructor from assignment more experiences to interact with other learners, in this case in support of practicing negotiations? While I greatly appreciated the course and the course content, I did feel this class sold itself short in the practice and application of the 8.5 hours of presented negotiation material.

Aside from this point of feedback, I was able to complete the negotiation exercise twice - once with my colleague in Boston, and once with my No Pay MBA cohort member in Belgium. I was fascinated - actually, I was totally blown away with this negotiation experience, especially since I did the negotiation twice, expecting to learn more / do “better” the second time. The brief overview of the negotiation exercise, which was to be completed in 30 minutes or less:

  • My position: My elderly uncle wanted to sell his home, yet had four criteria that were non-negotiables. I had to act on his behalf to negotiate a deal with the buyer, a former friend / colleague from high school back in the day, earning enough from the deal that would allow my uncle to purchase a smaller apartment.
  • The other position: This individual had the authority to negotiate the purchase of the property, with some flexibility, yet there were multiple aspects that this individual had to consider (I'm not disclosing more here to keep confidentiality of the exercise). 

When approaching this negotiation for the first time, I aimed to end with what I needed for my uncle. While I tried to anticipate the ZOPA (zone of potential agreement), I decided to try my best for an interest-based bargaining agreement, giving both sides the opportunity for a successful outcome. At the end of this exercise, I negotiated exactly what my uncle needed out of the deal. I left pleased …. yet the only feedback from my colleague was “ask more questions”. We didn’t debrief any further about the experience, as this would have given unfair insight into the second round of negotiations the following day. I was perplexed - I thought I had asked enough questions. I thought I understood my colleague’s point of view, and what was needed from the deal. If asking more questions was the feedback, however, I knew that my assumptions to my assessment must be totally off base, yet I couldn’t figure out how or why.

For the second negotiation, I again approached the deal as an interest-based bargaining exercise. Noting my own internal insecurities (even though this was a fictitious experience!), I attempted to set them aside and see if I could gain more for my uncle. My cohort member, however, started the negotiation with what I thought was an incredibly low offer. This had me immediately rethinking my strategy during the negotiation, though I thought I had taken my colleagues' advice and continued to ask more questions. At the end of this exercise, I had settled for the exact same agreement as the previous time - I got out of the deal exactly what my uncle needed, nothing more. I was satisfied …. until I debriefed and learned the other side of the story.

In this fictitious exercise, I learned that the other individual had a lot more to spend in the deal to acquire the property. A LOT of money .... all that I left on the table! In the debrief, I also learned the full aspects of what my negotiation partner had to consider; some of the information in our conversation was used only for my partner's personal gain - it really didn't impact the core of the deal that was being made. I left this exercise questioning how I value risk and reward, and contemplating how this factors into every position that is held. I also left the exercise questioning how dynamics change between a one-on-one negotiations vs a multi-party negotiation. Above all, I learned the value of preparation and practice. Like with most any skill-set, the understanding of a topic comes through dedicated learning and practice. 

Personally, continued learning and feeling confident in this topic seems to be endless journey - the more I learn, the more questions I have. While I would have preferred more classroom negotiation experience, I’m very much looking forward to continuing an individual exploration of this topic with other No Pay MBA cohort members through our own reading, study, and practice negotiation simulations together. I fully understand that some negotiations are more at risk than others - yet the value of truly understanding communications again dominates my ideal of leadership abilities.