March 9, 2015

Do the Math

What I Learned at a Negotiation Skills Workshop

Seventeen mid-career academic women sit around a large table, split into pairs, heads leaning in close over their notes. Their conversation is animated; they appear to be haggling over the price of bedsprings. “I can’t go any lower than $49/spring,” says one. “Well, I might be able to make that work, but I’ll need some confidence that we will be working together in the future” is the reply. These professors are participating in a Negotiation Skills Workshop, the first in a series of full-day workshops that constitute training for the Washington University Women Faculty Leadership Institute (WFLI). Our instructor for this Friday in February was Rebecca Hollander-Blumoff, Professor of Law at the Wash U. Law School. Dr. Hollander-Blumoff lived up to her reputation as an engaging, thoughtful, and humorous presenter.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma. We started with an icebreaker exercise based on game theory. The Prisoner’s Dilemma describes a series of competitive interactions wherein two individuals or teams must decide between 1) competing with each other for short-term gains, or 2) cooperating for long-term gains. Negotiating partners that do the math to reveal the advantage of cooperation, and then are able to develop a trusting relationship, have the best chance of winning the most points.

Getting to Yes. Our assigned reading was the classic bestseller, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Fisher, Ury, and Patton. According to Dr. Hollander-Blumoff, most books on negotiations are elaborations on the main themes you’ll find in this classic source, first published in 1981. The authors' main recommendation is to bargain over principles rather than over positions. There are four main approaches to accomplish this:

  • Separate people from the problem.
  • Focus on interests not positions.
  • Invent options for mutual gain.
  • Insist on using objective criteria.
I read Getting to Yes back when I was preparing for my faculty job search, but it was great fun to re-read it with more seasoned eyes. I realized that, while the approach is of course useful for those interactions we normally associate with negotiation, such as establishing one's start-up and salary, the application could be much broader. I will try applying the approaches in this book to my next “Response to Reviewers” (insisting that we use objective criteria, for example). Furthermore, those of us interested in a better relationship with the general public regarding contentious issues such as genetically modified crops or climate change might make good use of the section on separating people from the problem. I also bookmarked the section on planning and running a brainstorming session (p. 63-68), and will definitely refer to this the next time we need to think hard about the next set of experiments.

“make emotions explicit and acknowledge them as legitimate”, Getting to Yes, p. 33

Assuming Control of the Negotiation Space. One of our negotiation exercises involved acting as either a buyer or a seller of bedsprings (!!), and demonstrated clearly just how hard it can be to know the Zone of Possible Agreement (or ZOPA, the range of outcomes that would be acceptable to both parties). Because there was a great deal of confidential knowledge available only to the buyer or to the seller, it wasn’t evident during the initial negotiations what the ZOPA in this situation might be. In the wrap-up, it became clear that most of us were operating according to our “reservation price”, just making sure that the deal we made was better than our option if the negotiations fell through. But once all confidential information was revealed, it turned out that the possible range of agreement was huge—both the buyer and the seller could get a much better deal than they would expect based on their reservation price. While it’s a good idea to establish both an aspirational price and a reservation price prior to the negotiation, you should start your negotiation at the top, not at the bottom of your expectations.

The Psychology of Negotiation. Dr. Hollander-Blumoff described how knowing your negotiation style and that of your partner can help you both get the best outcome. She pointed out that:

  • Loss is more powerful than gain of the same value (this is why we prefer to get a discount for paying cash than paying a surcharge for using a credit card).
  • People overvalue things they already have, so there will be a barrier to trading, even for something of higher actual value.
  • The identity of the proposer can affect how the offer is perceived.
  • Process fairness (Dr. Hollander-Blumoff’s area of research) is critical, as people must feel that they are listened to, treated with courtesy, and trust the other party to be unbiased in order to engage fully in a negotiation.

My Take-Home Lessons. I learned a great deal about the process of preparing and engaging in negotiation in this workshop. The active negotiation exercises were both the most challenging and the most useful part of the day. Uncomfortable as it was, taking part in mock negotiations pushed the participants to engage with the material in a real, rather than academic way.

  • Preparation is essential. Dr. Hollander-Blumoff gave us plenty of time before each exercise to simply plan, do calculations, and think about all the variables. Knowing your aspiration price, your reservation price, and your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) before heading into the negotiation is very powerful.
  • You have to use both sides of your brain during the actual negotiation; your quantitative skills and your people skills.
  • It’s easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of the exchange, but I did much better when I did not allow myself to feel rushed and made myself calmly consider options.

Additional Reading. I haven’t read these yet; these books come from a list of  recommended reading compiled by Dr. Hollander-Blumoff.