Ask A Negotiation Expert: Spreading Negotiation Knowledge for a Better World

By — on / Leadership Skills

For 19 years, the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School has grown and thrived under the leadership of Managing Director Susan Hackley. As PON’s chief administrative and financial officer, Hackley has overseen all activities, including academic events, executive education, interdisciplinary programs, and publications, including Negotiation Briefings. Hackley, who has taught negotiation seminars around the world, is widely admired for her ability to create new programming, build consensus, and collaborate to spread the word about negotiation best practices and new research findings. On the eve of her retirement, we asked Hackley to reflect on the negotiation skills she draws on to advance PON’s mission.

Negotiation Briefings: What was a key challenge you faced as managing director of PON?

Susan Hackley: Before coming to PON, I cofounded an Internet company that helped people connect to causes they cared about, and before that, I was communications director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party—two jobs where I had to innovate and be nimble. As managing director, I was determined to bring entrepreneurial energy to PON. It was exciting to give a fresh look to every part of PON, showcasing hidden gems and starting some new enterprises, like the PON Film Series, Negotiation Briefings, the Harvard Negotiation Data Repository, and PON Global, the negotiation training program we have offered in 15 countries.

As I’ve learned from negotiation studies, it’s important to take into account the interests of all stakeholders. I would consider what we were doing from the vantage point of a wide spectrum of people who look to PON for help and information, including faculty, students, and events attendees, but also diplomats, businesspeople, nonprofit organizations, mediators, lawyers, and others who seek advice on how to build peace in their own communities.

NB: What do you regard as your greatest accomplishments at PON?

SH: As a consortium program of Harvard, MIT, and Tufts universities, PON is an amazing community of faculty, fellows, authors, trainers, students, and staff who represent a wide array of interests and disciplines, including law, business, public policy, psychology, economics, and education. It would be easy for such a diverse community to lose its cohesiveness. I’m proud that the PON community is stronger than ever.

We all have a shared belief that deploying negotiation skills leads to sustainable agreements, personal transformation, and a better world. Keeping that vision front and center mattered when we had disagreements about where to spend our resources or focus our attention.

I’m also very proud of our Great Negotiator program, which has honored leaders around the world for significant results they achieved through negotiation. Our Great Negotiators have ranged from Senator George Mitchell to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

And I’m especially proud to have developed PON Global, a negotiation course that we have held in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to China. Working with in-country partners, we have reached people who might never have come to a course in Cambridge, Mass.

NB: During your tenure, what positive shifts have you noticed in the negotiation field?

SH: I gave a talk at a conference a while back in Durban, South Africa, titled “Gandhi Was a Great Negotiator.” Making an explicit connection between the fields of negotiation and nonviolent action, two of the best methods for engaging constructively with conflict, has been gratifying. It has also been exciting to see the growth of the global peace-building community, of which PON is a part.

All great leaders are also great negotiators, whether they know it or not. Leaders such as Gandhi know how to persuade, strategize, and build coalitions. To underline the importance of leadership, we incorporated leadership training into our executive education programs and renamed our core offering, Negotiation & Leadership.

NB: What pressing societal problem is on your mind, and how can negotiation help to address it?

SH: We see the disconnect throughout the United States between police and the communities they serve, between Democrats and Republicans, and between rich and poor. For decades, PON has examined what works and what doesn’t in dealing with conflict, and we strive to share these ideas and research as broadly as possible. I started as managing director the week after the horrific events of 9/11, and this work has always felt relevant and important to me.

NB: What’s next for you, and what role will negotiation play in your future?

SH: Negotiation is the secret sauce in everything I do, and I am always delighted when I realize how much my family has picked up along the way—concepts like “confirmation bias,” “going to the balcony,” and “role reversal.” On the other hand, it’s dismaying to see how many people don’t know how to negotiate effectively.

I have a particular interest in bringing together civilians and military people to discuss the shared costs of war using the short documentary film I produced, Veteran Children: When Parents Go To War. War is a sign of failed negotiations, and I believe that veterans and civilians should collaborate on trying to avoid war. When a war ends, there are always negotiations over the terms of surrender or agreement. I like to say, let’s just skip the war and get to those negotiations!

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