Teaching negotiation is easy because teachers and students find the topic fun, interesting, and relevant, which makes most negotiation courses well received. At the same time, teachers may underestimate the challenges in getting their students to think and behave differently in negotiation, which can make it difficult to teach it well. The author examines three teaching challenges in particular: dealing with ethical issues, addressing power imbalances (including those implicated by gender and racial differences), and putting theory into practice in the form of real‐world behavior change. This piece is an adaptation of the keynote address that the author delivered on November 14, 2005 at the PON‐IRENE conference, New Trends in Negotiation Teaching: Toward a Transatlantic Network, in Cergy, France.

Teaching negotiation is paradoxically both dangerously easy and dangerously hard. It is easy because we love the subject and so do our students. For them, acting out role‐play simulations and watching videos provides a welcome break from administrative law, accounting, or planning theory. And we certainly do not have to sell negotiation: students know it will be important in their personal and professional lives. They want to become more effective, whether they see effectiveness in negotiation as the ability to drive a better price or to forge more constructive relationships.

And teaching is often just as much fun for us. It enables us to be impresarios, to present a mixed‐media extravaganza that includes role‐plays, videos, and auctions. (Does selling a ten‐dollar bill for twice its face value ever get old?) In our cross‐disciplinary courses, we teach economics majors how to communicate and poets how to compute expected value. Our classes are lively and we seldom give lectures. Instead, we dash up and down the aisles, popping questions, and pulling surprises out of our sleeves. In all this interaction, we also get to know our students well — their personalities, their values, and their abilities to “think on their feet.”

But now I come to the “too easy” part: our students’ enthusiasm and our own zeal for negotiation and negotiation courses cannot automatically be taken as evidence that we actually teach the subject as well as we should. It is one thing to help students understand something about negotiation, and, on that level, we may indeed largely succeed. However, it is quite another to teach students to internalize that understanding, to actually think and behave differently.

Many readers may already know this and are committed to improving their effectiveness as teachers of negotiation. But I believe that we may underestimate the challenge. Langley Keyes, who was a colleague of mine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, often worried out loud that too many of our students graduated “unscathed.” By that, he meant that students entered and exited our program without substantially revising their views of the world or their places in it. They might arrive as Marxists or Chicago‐school economists but, either way, they left with their assumptions intact. Professor Keyes felt that was a waste because higher education should sow doubt, not certainty.

Among the challenges that today's negotiation teachers confront, three stand out for me as the most significant. I will call them the ethics challenge, the power challenge, and the behavior challenge.

The ethics challenge stems from our goal of teaching students how to negotiate (not merely about negotiation), which is attempting nothing less than teaching them how to relate to one another more effectively. And, how a person negotiates with others inevitably reflects and determines what she owes them — specifically, what she owes them (if anything) with regard to candor, substantive fairness, and the use (or avoidance) of pressure tactics. That is the ethical dimension of relationships.

The power challenge involves how we as teachers deal with issues of social identity and equity, because people's interactions both shape and are shaped by their respective roles and status. Negotiation is not a solo performance. Intelligence, training, and experience matter, but all the skill in the world may not help a negotiator when the other side holds the cards. To deny this is to artificially sanitize the process. On the other hand, if we examine issues of status and power in great depth by bringing in findings from sociology, social psychology, political science, and organizational behavior, we risk losing focus. Attempting to teach some sort of unified field theory of human interaction would be folly.

Finally, the relational nature of negotiation presents us with the third challenge, that of changing students’ actual behaviors. How people behave in negotiation is driven by habits, assumptions, and associations that they have acquired throughout their lifetimes. Psychotherapists would greet with skepticism our cheerful belief that simply introducing students to a new idea, such as the mutual‐gains approach, is enough to prompt behavioral change. Likewise, merely providing students with opportunities to experiment via role‐play simulations, while providing excellent opportunities to practice new skills, is, by itself, unlikely to be truly transformative.

Ethics and negotiation comprise a realm in which we all struggle. And there may be no way around it — I have not been especially happy with any of the variety of approaches that I have tried. I have used ethics as a course summary device, for example, presenting students with scenarios that illustrate issues of substantive fairness, permissible tactics, and principal–agent conflicts. These vignettes stimulate good discussion and help students link the examples to materials that we have covered earlier in the course.

I worry, however, about provoking debates on what we owe other people and why, while offering little in the way of resolution. Assertions fly back and forth, but are not deeply examined. “All's fair in love, war, and negotiation,” some students will claim. Others counter that “what goes around, comes around.” Such statements are largely tautological and do not involve any deep moral reasoning. Is it really enough to confront students with the fact that viewpoints often diverge? By standing aloof from the discussion, will I risk appearing to endorse moral relativism?

The alternate — jumping in and revealing my own values — has its risks. Whatever position I take, I may end up preaching to one choir and scolding another. Idealistic students will be reassured, but others may view me and my course more skeptically. I am not sure that either group will end up better equipped to make difficult ethical choices.

Similar issues arise if teachers try to “spin gold” out of students’ experiences in simulations. Exposing one student who has misled another may seem like great theater, but it can alienate individuals and divide the class. It may cheer the righteous when the wicked are cast out, but others who have similarly stretched the truth may just learn not to get caught.

So it is unsurprising that our discussions of ethical issues are often brief asides, and that we move on quickly to explain what a ZOPA (zone of possible agreement) is or how anchoring works. Giving more time to ethical issues, as important as they are, could mean trimming another critical negotiation topic.

But even if we declare that ethics are outside the scope of the course, students will detect a point of view in our syllabi and materials. Like many other teachers, I am sure, I use movie clips to illustrate negotiation issues and behaviors. In one particular scene in the comedy Tin Men (Levinson 1987), Richard Dreyfuss is trying to buy a new Cadillac from a stereotypical car salesman who does not know that Dreyfuss himself is a con man who uses every dirty trick in the business to sell aluminum siding. I like this particular scene because it playfully illustrates the art of haggling between a salesman and a wily customer. Some other teachers, however, might assert that I should not expose my students to this material. Essentially, they would ban from the negotiation curriculum anything that smacks of hard bargaining.

Some years ago, in fact, there was a heated debate over this exact issue at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Management. One group — let us call them the nice guys — essentially argued that to present the kind of gambits shown in the scene from Tin Men is to endorse them. We should teach students to open doors, they said, not to pick locks. But others countered that averting our eyes from hard bargaining denies how the world often works. At the very least, they claimed, we must prepare our students to cope with people who use aggressive tactics and dirty tricks.

By showing the tape, I guess I have betrayed where I come out on that debate. But the idealists may have a point. If we teach prescriptive courses, if we attempt to teach people how to behave, we cannot avoid the fact that we are transmitting values. And that is true whether Getting to YES and its “principled negotiation” (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1991) is the cornerstone of your class or you engage in more mischief, as I do. Giving equal time to different viewpoints may merely be a convenient way of ducking our responsibilities to the students we teach and influence.

The first wave of modern negotiation literature largely sidestepped the troublesome issue of power, and not without reason, given its complexity. In many quarters, power was taken to be an external factor, a function of parties’ luck that determines whether one's best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) is favorable or not. If a negotiator is able to improve his situation through actions he takes away from the table, he can improve his “walk away” and insist on a better deal. If not, he may have to take what is offered.

This equation is virtuous in its simplicity: it allows negotiation theorists to consider the world as it is, though not perhaps as it should be. In this view, negotiation cannot be expected to redress the inequities of our social and legal systems. Rather, it only needs to provide an alternate that parties can pursue when that proves advantageous.

Thus the negotiation theory that we teach is considered as relevant to the injured plaintiff in a product liability case as it is to the manufacturer of the defective product, even though such parties may have very different needs, resources, and risk profiles. The premise that exploring underlying interests is superior to doggedly arguing positions ostensibly applies whether the cards one holds are strong or weak. Likewise, coalition analysis, backwards mapping, and getting the dominos to tip in the right direction are important whether you are the lion or the lamb.

If pressed, I would agree that such universal lessons exist. But I sometimes close a seminar with a Henry Kissinger story that some of you have probably heard before. In my version, the former Secretary of State is being interviewed by veteran television journalist Bill Moyers.

It goes something like this: Kissinger and Moyers walk down a garden path at Kissinger's lush Hudson River estate when two peacocks traipse by, descendents of birds that the Chinese premier Chou En‐lai had presented to Kissinger when he made the secret trip to China to arrange President Richard Nixon's historic visit. This trip, I tell my students, offers a nice example of both the role of agents in negotiation and of “moves away from the table.”

Moyers and Kissinger next encounter a moth‐eaten old camel Kissinger was given by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which prompts Kissinger to describe the intricacies of politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, which I link to sequencing and process management.

Finally, they reach the end of the path where behind a tall wrought iron fence a hulking, living, breathing lion cuddles up next to a tiny newborn lamb. Although taken aback, Moyers finally manages to ask, “Dr. Kissinger, I know you are a negotiator of great accomplishment, but how did you manage to solve this problem of Biblical proportion: how did you get the lion to lie down with the lamb?”

Imitating Kissinger's deep voice and German accent to the best of my ability, I say, “Well, first we look at interests instead of positions. Next, we manage the tension between creating and claiming. And finally . . . we get a new lamb every morning.”

That gets a laugh, at least from people who have not heard the joke a hundred times before. I tell my students that sometimes they will be the lion and sometimes the lamb, but I hope that the frameworks and techniques that we covered will help them in either situation.

In the process, however, I imply that being a lion or a lamb is a matter of fate or circumstance. And, indeed, sometimes it is. Eighth graders are the kings and queens of the middle school who one year later enter the feudal society of high school as serfs. However, whatever broad social roles are assigned to us, specific relationships are negotiated by individuals. Some freshmen strut through high school as if they have been there for years, while there are many upperclassmen who never manage to fit in.

Woody Allen once said that life is like high school, but if that is the case, conventional negotiation theory does not have much to say that pertains to real‐world social dynamics and group behavior. It is surely much more than just BATNAs.

Last year, for example, the Program on Negotiation awarded its sixth annual Great Negotiator award to Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Asked to address huge crises from the Balkans to Central Africa, she had at her disposal little in the way of either carrots or sticks and was hampered by tepid support from her own organization. Nevertheless, she fostered agreements that saved tens of thousands of lives under the most harrowing of circumstances.

Ogata speaks matter‐of‐factly about sitting down with former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who, even as she did so, was busy orchestrating campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Imagine a small Japanese woman in her sixties negotiating humanitarian issues with the one of the world's most notorious war criminals! Her success defies logic. Clearly, she knows things about bargaining that are not encompassed in basic negotiation theory, and which we may still not fully understand.

But many of my colleagues have indeed made advances in the study of how relationships themselves are negotiated. The work of Simmons College professor Deborah Kolb on “moves and turns” is one example of how microtransactions define relationships, roles, and responsibilities in organizations (Kolb 2004). In turn, the research of Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon, Hannah Riley Bowles at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Kathleen McGinn at the Harvard Business School, among others, has illuminated gender issues in the negotiation process (Bowles, Babcock, and McGinn 2005).

But research in this domain is way ahead of our teaching. Given students’ strong feelings across the spectrum about issues related to “political correctness,” it is easy to make missteps. When I teach such topics of basic negotiation analysis as BATNA calculation and concession patterns, I refer to Bowles’ study of MBA students at a well‐known business school (Bowles, Babcock, and McGinn 2005). As they prepared for a simple distributive exercise, she surveyed them for both their expected first offers and their ultimate walk‐away price. Students were told the name of the particular person they would be paired with, which implicitly cued them to the gender of their counterparts. As you may know from the study, students reported that (on average) they would ask a significantly higher price from a female counterpart than from a male.

When I present these data, I ask what accounts for these differences. Students offer a variety of explanations. People believe women are less effective negotiators than men, they say, so you should ask for more. Others contend that women are better negotiators, so one needs to leave more room for concession. On the other hand, maybe negotiators are not asking more of women but less of men because they find confronting a male more frightening. Or perhaps a vicious cycle is at work: if women are forced to begin bargaining at a higher number, they will likely end up paying more, which conditions salespeople to open with even higher prices, and the process becomes self‐fulfilling.

Students clam up, though, when I ask them to explain Bowles’ second finding: that males and females alike stipulate a higher walk‐away from women than they do of men. “What's going on here?” I ask. “If you’d be willing to accept $110,000 from a man why would you refuse that same amount from a woman?”

Here is where the teaching grows more difficult: students do not believe they would behave that way themselves. They may accept the research in theory, but will not concede that they, too, could be subject to an unconscious bias. That is the nature of the unconscious, after all.

Bowles’ research, and other work like it, is so important. This less‐than‐fully conscious calculation of what to demand and what to accept both reflects and determines the larger ways in which we see ourselves in relation to others. I wish my students could recognize that. Instead, I fear that their attitudes about gender and their self‐conceptions are so fixed that they torture the research data to fit their views. Here again, I am worried that they emerge from my courses unscathed. If we are optimists, of course, we can cheer ourselves with the notion that at some later point the light bulb of true recognition will flick on, though we will receive little feedback if, when, and how this happens.

For a number of years, Harvard's required first‐year MBA negotiation course included a session that dealt with race and gender discrimination in automobile sales. Students were assigned an excerpt of Ian Ayres’ classic Harvard Law Review article and, in class, shown video clips of a news show that documented how salesmen treat male and female, white and black customers differently (Ayres 1991). In class discussion, the focal question was what, if anything, students would do about these practices if they owned the dealership, which in turn raised the question of whether, if prices are negotiated, discrimination is inevitable.

Our experience with the module was mixed at best. Younger faculty found it hard to lead the discussion, fearful that they lose control of it, and some women students expressed frustration that it largely fell to them to deal with gender issues while many men kept silent. In most classes, the racial side of the study never even came up. More than one African– American student told me after class that they just were not going to say what their white classmates do not want to hear — namely that they witness such discrimination all the time.

And then one year the student newspaper published an article written by an African–American student who argued that the particular class was an affront. He read the Ayres study as purporting to prove that blacks were not as good as whites at negotiating — after all, they ended up paying much more for cars.

Of course, that was not Ayres’ point, and it certainly was not ours in assigning the article. Quite the opposite, in fact: you could reasonably conclude that the data show that if certain people (blacks, women) confront a higher initial asking price, they must bargain hard just to get down to where a member of a more favored group begins.

After this controversy, however, it is a small wonder that our teaching group dropped the module from our required first‐year course. With that particular lightning rod gone we no longer see that particular anger. But I suspect it is still there, though now perhaps it takes the form of unstated resentment that we are deliberately ducking uncomfortable questions about bargaining power in a decidedly imperfect world. BATNA analysis just does not get us to these issues.

Of the challenges explored in this piece, the last may be the most difficult: transforming students’ interpersonal behavior. We should not underestimate the difficulty of teaching lambs to be assertive or lions to be empathetic. Old habits die hard, even when we sincerely want to kick them. Legions of therapists can testify that understanding an idea on a conceptual level is one thing, but putting it into practice is quite another.

A funny scene from the film Defending Your Life (Brooks 1991) illustrates my point. The premise of the movie is that when the main character, portrayed by Albert Brooks, dies, he is sent to Judgment City where his life is reviewed by a panel of judges. If they find he was courageous in his earthly life, he will be promoted to the next karmic level. But if he is judged to have been a coward, he will be sent back for another round of life as we know it. (If he keeps failing, he will ultimately be discarded.)

In this excerpt, the prosecutor in Judgment City confronts Brooks with evidence of cowardice in the form of a negotiation. In spite of his wife's patient coaching to demand a handsome salary in his new job, Brooks meekly caves in and accepts a low‐ball first offer. Negotiators may identify with Brooks’ character as they recall moments when they lost composure and buckled under pressure. But as teachers, we really should identify with Brooks’ wife in this scene. She is his trainer, after all, the one who is trying to help him be more assertive. In his case, however, practice did not make perfect.

As teachers, are we any better at instilling confidence and enabling students to assert their interests effectively when the emotional stakes are high? And are we really capable of teaching self‐absorbed students to be more empathetic?

I doubt neither our good intentions nor our efforts. But students arrive in our classrooms with powerful pre‐conceived feelings and attitudes about negotiation that we must consider. Harvard Medical School Professor Kim Leary and I have been exploring this realm using my colleague Gerald Zaltman's patented ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique) technique (Zaltman 2003). The underlying premise of the ZMET is that much of our conscious thinking is driven by underlying images and metaphors. We do not dream in texts or spreadsheets, after all. And when it comes to negotiation, our dreams sometimes border on anxious nightmares.

We interviewed a small group of mid‐ and upper‐level managers, after having asked them to select a half‐dozen photographs and pictures that somehow reflected their thoughts and feelings about impending negotiation (Leary and Wheeler 2002; Wheeler 2004).

In carefully structured three‐to‐four‐hour interviews, subjects were asked to explain what in their pictures represented negotiation and then to construct collages that show the connections among the concepts and images. Although each subject also selected some sunnier images, suggestive of constructive relationships and agreement, each and every subject selected images that symbolized the perils of negotiation and the negative emotions it is believed to produce.

Some examples:

  • A train. “The train racing along the track . . . represents either time pressure, a deadline approaching or other unrelenting pressure . . . from some other source.”

  • A man walking a tightrope. “You need to know . . . to walk that fine line of not pushing too hard, yet pushing hard enough.”

  • A banana peel and a dissected brain. “One of the main concerns is for failing in the negotiation; another fear is fear of being outwitted by the other participant.”

  • A snake oil salesman. “An unworthy opponent, the silly opponent, the person who we’re stuck with and we have to play tennis with and it's going to be very difficult to play good tennis with.”

  • A wolf lurking under a man's face. “To make the wolf extinct will harm us as a human species and as individuals. So you want to keep the wolf within yourself alive.”

  • An alligator with a small frog hanging out its jaw. “There is tremendous ambiguity about why the frog is there, who is in control, what are the circumstances of that interaction.”

I should note that Leary and I drew our sample from executives who had already taken at least one senior‐level negotiation training course. They were not inexperienced neophytes. It is safe to say that many of our students bring similar anxieties to our classes, and it can be difficult to dislodge such anxiety‐provoking preconceptions.

A key feature of the negotiation workshop taught at Harvard Law School is the Interpersonal Skills Exercise. Instructors in this course place the students into trios whose members have rotating responsibilities. Each one is asked to confront his or her greatest interpersonal challenge at the bargaining table, while another student plays the provocateur, and the third acts as a coach.

For example, a student who feels she has problems speaking up for herself when others are condescending or dismissive is given an opportunity to see what it feels like to be more assertive. Tested and challenged by her counterpart, she can try out responses that might be out of character.

Inspired by this example, I assign exercises in improvisation, both theatrical and musical, to my students in hopes of training them to think “on their feet.” Students enjoy the exercises, and I would like to believe that some of them become more nimble in the process. But improv comics and jazz musicians take years to develop these kinds of improvisational muscles. It is one thing for students to play with a new technique in the safety of a classroom with a teacher on hand to offer encouragement and feedback. Real‐world negotiation is far more challenging, especially when much is at stake both substantively and emotionally.

On one level, our courses differ markedly. Some derive from microeconomics and game theory; others are psychologically based. Some are generic, while others are situated in specific contexts. Yet despite such contrast, all our courses have one profound and powerful thing in common: they teach our students that negotiation is something that they can do, not something that happens to them. Our case studies provide countless examples of people taking the initiative. Our simulations give students the opportunity to be purposive instead of merely reactive.

Whether students are schooled in the idealism of Getting to YES (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1991), the somewhat worldlier Beyond Winning (Mnookin, Peppet, and Tulumello 2000), or some other text may actually matter less than the fact that one way or another, their eyes have been opened to the possibility of changing the game.

Teaching negotiation is too easy if we mistake student applause for success and too hard if we take it upon ourselves to change people's fundamental nature and values — or to redress power imbalances in an imperfect world.

But those are laudable aspirations — our reach should exceed our grasp. We should draw satisfaction when, as is often the case, we enable our students to salvage agreements that might otherwise have slipped through their fingers, to create value that might have been left on the table, and, sometimes, to replace conflict with peace. We are far, however, from perfecting the art of teaching negotiation. Acknowledging the pedagogical challenges is only a first step. The search for new and creative ways to inspire deep learning can keep us fruitfully engaged for years to come.

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