It recently occurred to me that something at first so natural to kids at the cafe lunch table in elementary school tends to be so absent from our school curricula. For over two hundred years in American education there has a been a “N” word that has been prohibited at schools and it has nothing to do with race. “Negotiation.” There, I said it. It has a nice ring to it. Yet, it is a skill schools feel uncomfortable teaching their students. Maybe it is because many teachers themselves are so uncomfortable with the process. One can picture the early 1800’s schoolmarm or master abhorring the prospects of negotiating a fair salary with the townspeople. Room, board and some travel expenses will suffice but what if I am no longer able to teach? Outside of public school district collective bargaining, teachers in general have been reluctant wheelers and dealers. Is this why educators tend to be paid less on average than most professions requiring as much education.
Educators also tend to scare at the notion of students having a negotiating voice in school proceedings. One does not have to be around long to hear from a fellow teacher that “the inmates are running the asylum” when the notion of the value of student input into the curriculum and discipline code are broached by students or the “radical” colleague.
Well, I want to assert the case for negotiation as one of the primary skill sets we teach American students. Why do we kick the proverbial can down the road toward Business school or MBA programs when it comes to negotiation? Shouldn’t the abilities to empathize, strategize, barter, problem solve, create and close be central to the 21st Century Education? Pat Bassett, past President of the National Association of Independent Schools cited six “Demonstrations of Learning” in 2009. Many independent schools ran with the list and incorporated it with slight variations into their strategic plans and their portraits of learners in their communities. The splendid six were:
1. Character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage); 2. Creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit; 3. Real-world problem-solving (filtering, analysis, and synthesis); 4. Public speaking/communications; 5. Teaming 6. Leadership
Among the researchers Bassett cited in his 2009 article espousing these six was Tony Wagner and his impressive work The Global Achievement Gap which bemoaned the ways students were learning (or not) in schools and how we were not preparing them with skills they would need to compete in a world that had shifted. The world had shifted mostly because it is now flat as Thomas Friedman eloquently stated in his critical text. But even Wagner and Bassett don’t specifically say we need to teach negotiation. Respecting both of them, I would tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. In doing so, I would point to the six skills and illustrate just how implicit negotiation is to each.
1. Empathy is a critical skill in negotiation. Knowing the cards the other side holds as well as the emotional leanings they have can help one get to the heart of a deal that will work. Resiliency and courage are critical to making the right deals and being patient to hold out for what matters most. Cultural negotiations also lend themselves to wonderful learning opportunities in empathy. We all can envision the 1980’s power business deals with the Japanese with the awkwardness of the handshake versus the bow. It would be great to put our students in situations such as these. And with the technical ease of something like Skype, we can now do this without traveling abroad. 2. Creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit are critical to the negotiation process. Placing students in negotiation scenarios is the best way for them to practice these skills. We can’t just talk about creativity or have them design an art project and say we are teaching creativity. Furthermore, the entrepreneurial student is traditionally looked upon with a weary eye by educators. Formal negotiation training built into curricula can correct this failing. 3. When we can’t agree at the lunch table on a one for one deal Pringles for Pudding, we need to see other possible outcomes. What about a 3 way deal? What about future considerations? Our students can see this in NBA transactions, but why can’t we bring this to life for them in the curriculum? Bassett mentioned filtering, analysis and synthesis. Ostensibly this means DATA. Why can’t STEM courses incorporate negotiation data analysis into their skills development? 4. The ability to communicate ones needs in a transaction is critical practice. Having taught Speech and Debate for several years at an independent school, I was frustrated by the typically uninspired persuasive speech on a less relevant topic foisted upon the student. Lincoln-Douglass debates also lacked pizzaz. So, I added a third component to my course: negotiation. We negotiated salary packages for first jobs out of college. We negotiated collective bargaining agreements. We negotiated Nick Saban’s contract at Bama (the boys, in particular, loved that one). 5. Teaming to get a deal done is also one of the wonderful processes in negotiation. Whether I work together with those on my side to see the whole picture or I team with my chief rival for the common good, I learn that only by working in unison can the greater good be served. In the Negotiation classes, we practiced a wonderful game/simulation lent to us by Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. In the game, two teams are created. Each team has a chief negotiator. The rest of the seven members of each team are responsible for certain parts of the deal creation. The teams are situated in opposite rooms, and at designated times, only the counterparts of negotiation (Chief with Chief, #2 with opponent #2, etc) meet at the negotiating table. When they go back to the team room, they invariably try to sway their team to make the concessions needed by their counterpart. The counterparts become invested in each other. Points are given when there is agreement on certain issues. When there are breakdowns, points are deducted. This is a tremendous exercise in a greater framework for teamwork. It also relates closely with Skill #1, empathy. Educators can see how important this is at an adult level in schools when a proposal needs endorsement. For more simulations from Harvard’s PON go to www.pon.harvard.edu/teaching-materials-publications 6. Negotiating for one’s side means standing up for the things that matter and conceding the things that don’t really matter. Isn’t that what leadership is?
I encourage educators to take a second look at your perceptions of negotiation. Is it a dirty word? Do you feel dirty doing it? Why do we let students hit the “real world” without this critical skill? Do they have to get ripped off on their first used car purchase as a “rite of passage” to learn negotiation skills? We can do better.
Until next time, here’s my best offer: Your pudding and peanut butter sandwich, along with Jimmy’s peach for my Pringles, Jimmy’s apple and another snack to be named later. What do you say?
B.A.T.N.A.= best alternative to negotiated agreement, i.e. if we don’t make a deal what will I have? Is that better than the deal they are offerin