Harvard Negotiation Masterclass, some feedback.

Last week, I’ve participated to the Harvard Negotiation Masterclass. Its objective is to instill advanced skills and new insights in participants already well-versed in the foundational concepts of a mutual-gains approach in negotiation. This is done in small groups, with access to negotiation experts from Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Program on Negotiation, a consortium project of these universities, is probably the world’s most vibrant effort for reflection and training on negotiation.

This negotiation masterclass clearly shows the importance, for a negotiator, to be conscious about the negotiation process, the situation of the counterpart and your own behavior. Far too often, we still send negotiators in front of their counterparts with barely the minimum information – the ideal outcome for one’s own side and some arguments to be stated in an affirmative way – assuming things will go smoothly or that the elected negotiators would be natural talents. Experienced negotiators know that is wishful thinking…

4 half-day sessions and networking

Brian Mandell’s opening course was, not surprisingly, about creating impactful openings. He has extensively studied the “thin slice” of the first 5 minutes of a negotiation, or more generally the pre-anchoring phase (before the first “anchor” offer is made), during which important things happen that influence, to a great extent, the outcome of the negotiation. Concrete tactics and skills have been provided to the participants to determine “readiness to negotiate”, shape process expectations, ask probing questions, control the amount of time and the tone of your speaking etc. For those long and complex negotiations I’ve been taking part to, the pre-anchoring phase is definitely longer than 5 min. But I fully acknowledge that this pre-anchoring phase has a disproportionate impact on the rest of the negotiation. It should therefore attract a substantial part of our preparation and concentration. We did 3 consecutive simulation exercises with 3 different persons, which was certainly helpful to fix the principles in our minds and learn by doing.

As Francesca Gino was unfortunately absent, Julia Minson introduced us to the subject of cognitive biases and the way to overcome them in negotiation. I am quite a rational person, so, unfortunately for the sake of this course, my results of the upfront test didn’t identify substantial biases. Maybe, my personal bias was an excessive will to give what I perceived as the most adequate answer? Still, understanding which biases occur and how they impact us is fundamental, both for knowing ourselves and understanding irrational behavior in our negotiation counterparts. Some examples of these biases: the framing effect, sunk cost bias, decoy/asymmetric dominance effect, self-serving perception of fairness, etc. A realistic simulation exercise of a classic building conflict around a rejected claim, was helpful to stir up the biases within these experienced negotiators. Food for reflection afterwards, I hope.

“Diversifying the negotiator’s emotional portfolio” was the subject of the second day’s morning part, presented by Michael Wheeler (replacing Kim Leary). Some of the topics: The impact of anger and anxiety; Emotional Intelligence; Recognizing facial expressions; Ability to recognize deception. Reference was also made to various authors on the subject, including Chris Voss the writer of the bestseller “never split the difference”.

Finally, professor Larry Susskind shared with the participants his vast experience and research which is the product of actual practice (rather than experimental research). He gave passionate explanations on multi-party negotiations, winning and blocking coalitions, devising seminars, consensus building and the helpful role of facilitators/mediators. A very realistic simulation of a potential harbor investment project with all involved stakeholders (regulator, ecologists, unions, other harbors etc.) enabled the participants to exercise consensus building, avoid blocking coalitions and look for a mutually beneficial solution that maximizes the value creation.

Apart from these sessions, there were also networking opportunities and breakfast & dinner events with the participants, the above-mentioned thought leaders and the negotiations coaches.

Value of this negotiation masterclass

For the investment that participation to this negotiation masterclass represents (about 5 kUSD to which you have to add hotel and travel expenses), it is clear that participation is an exceptional event that can only be justified for certain profiles of negotiators: very experience negotiators that want to further develop their self-consciousness and continue improving, negotiation team leaders, people training others (professors, consultants etc.). The whole marketing of the course is around this. But one absolutely needs to be aware that this course is not a shortcut to reach negotiation maturity rapidly. You would not be able to draw enough basic learning from this negotiation masterclass without substantial prior experience and/or training.

The advantage of the high “entry ticket” and “masterclass status” is that you get a more homogeneous group of participants. Homogeneous in terms of negotiation experience, while the participants were from all over the world, which was a big plus. The quality of the other participants is particularly important in view of the large number of negotiation exercises, one-to-one or in small groups. It was important that the participants picked up the substance of the theoretical courses instantly and were able to apply this right away. Otherwise, the feedback from the other participants at the end of the exercise would not be of a lot of value. I personally regret that the organizer didn’t observe more during the exercises and provided personalized feedback; but the size of the groups (60 participants) and the time available (2.5 days) didn’t allow for that. As you can imagine, some of the participants could set aside any fresh learning as soon as an exercise started with their competitive nature kicking-in, leaving their counterparts hardly any time to talk. Not helpful for learning on finding win-win solutions and very much contrary to the substance of this negotiation masterclass.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to check out, with a completely independent person, whether this training is the right one for you. In case you fit into the descriptions I mentioned above, I can certainly recommend it to you.

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