I’m about halfway through a course based on the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, called How to talk to people about things. If you’ve read Getting To Yes (which I’ve started but never finished), it has pretty much the same focus.

The first session was mostly taken up by a game that was supposed to show us the value of cooperation. This didn’t entirely resonate for me, and it felt more like an iterative Prisoners’ Dilemma. The rounds were mostly dominated by defection (probably because we all knew we wouldn’t be playing that long). All the same, it was a good object lesson that people tend to be competitive even when it’s in their best interests to cooperate. This is something that I know I need to watch out for.

Week 2 was all about practical approaches to negotiations: interests versus positions, knowing your options and alternatives, all that good stuff. Again, it felt a bit contrived. But later on in the week I ended up using some of the techniques described to defuse a fractious situation. It wasn’t really a negotiation, or shouldn’t have been, but what I thought was going to be a pretty straightforward technical conversation got a bit heated and turned into a battle of wills. My opponent and I both dug in our heels on an important detail of a workflow, and it was only when I realized this, reset my own expectations, and asked them what they were hoping to achieve as an end state that things started calming down. In the end we went with my plan, but they understood why and they had a commitment from me to re-examine the workflow once some other pieces were in place. I would probably have gotten my way if I’d kept being obstinate, but I think I’m happier with where we ended up.

Week 3 was all about cultivating the skill of listening - so fewer exercises, more anecdotes. I was supposed to have a description of a difficult conversation written up. Unfortunately I didn’t get to it thanks to a week of colds and work emergencies and other such excuses. I ended up critiquing someone else’s homework, which was hardly fair on them. It did shed some light on something that bothered me a bit about the material so far, namely unspoken cultural biases. She’d moved from the US to Canada, and her homework was the story of someone coming into her office in tears towards the end of a process from which they’d felt she’d excluded them. Her angle was that she’d stepped up when nobody else was doing anything. This is a feeling I know all too well. I’ve gotten it under control now, but previously I’d often ended up running things more out of frustration at other people’s indecision than out of interest or duty. She expected to be challenged if she’d overstepped, and so did I, but that doesn’t work in the Canadian workplace. People will tend to avoid confrontation and get quietly resentful, it builds to a head, and bam! Tears in your office. The best answer I’ve found is to try to lead with a very light hand, and to focus on setting things up to encourage people to contribute rather than just going with your own ideas, but it can be hard depending on their level of engagement.

Overall so far it’s a better use of my Tuesday night than most of the alternatives (it’s my BATNA, as the course would have me put it). It’s definitely not teaching any shortcuts to mre rewarding human interaction though. Applying the skills in real life takes patience and success is not guaranteed. It’s also not universal. One participant seems to be very set on practicing on her partner, and going by her stories, that’s not going well. I suppose you can’t treat romantic relationships as being composed of disinterested third parties.

Lesson learned (so far): Control your competitive side. Think about other people’s interests and fears and try to come to mutually beneficial outcomes. Listen well and don’t dominate.

(It’s remarkable how much this stuff maps on to “give, sympathize, control.”)