Negotiators of the 21st Century

January 12, 2000
Adrianne Kaufmann

Syria and Israel are struggling through it. Labor and management are frequently immersed in it. And now, students at the Kennedy School are learning how it's done. Intensive, down-to-the-wire negotiation with painful concessions and complex compromise is now a part of the Kennedy School experience for 60 students who would normally be on winter break.

The students are role-playing negotiation scenarios in which sides are taken in the El Salvador Civil War, the Hormel Spam strike in the 1980s and a global climate change debate in the School's Negotiation Workshop. These students critique themselves and their classmates' skills as facilitators, arbitrators and negotiators.

In the first week the students work on complex multi-party negotiations that do not involve third parties such as the Hormel Spam strike. During the second week - when the students are comfortable in the class and have developed their negotiating skills - they look at mediation and the role of third parties. All this culminates in an intense international mediation at the end of the week.

"We wanted to give our students a chance to work on complex, messy public sector disputes where it's often not clear who the stakeholders are and who speaks with authority," said Brian Mandell, co-teacher in the workshop. "Good listening skills are of prime importance in dealing with such disputes and negotiators must have the patience to sift through the facts and hear all sides of an argument."

Taught by Kennedy School faculty Brian Mandell and Keith Allred, the workshop was created last year to help KSG students build the skills necessary for good public deliberation and good public problem-solving. These skills are in short-supply today with a generation that has grown up with TV remotes in their hands.

During the workshop, the students spend two weeks hearing lectures, working through simulation exercises, and exhaustively evaluating their own performances and those of their classmates. The simulations range from labor disputes to environmental struggles to ending and international conflict with a negotiated cease-fire.

Throughout the two weeks, a video camera is running, giving the students an opportunity to observe their own performance. The workshop also features an abundance of human feedback, contributed by instructors, coaches and fellow students. After each exercise, students fill out forms evaluating their own performance. They are also evaluated by fellow students who had had an opportunity to observe them closely. The results of these evaluations are tabulated to create a profile of the class as a whole.

The hope is that in the end all this feedback will help students become more creative and innovative social entrepreneurs.

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