Bruce Patton on Teaching the Micro-Skills of Negotiation

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills, Pedagogy at PON

There is often a profound gap – of which we are typically unaware – between what we “know” or “believe” about effective negotiation practice and what we actually do as practitioners under pressure.  Bruce Patton, the founder of Vantage Partners and co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, advocates helping students master key “micro-skills” to enable them to demonstrate competent macro-behaviors in negotiation. In his presentation “Using Micro-Skills Practice to Enable Competent Macro-Behaviors” at the December 2009 PON Faculty Dinner Seminar, Patton outlined the innovative technique that is reviewed in this article.

Patton emphasized that teachers wanting to help students learn to use knowledge (as opposed to acquiring knowledge) and build skills (as opposed to learning about skills) should take a “Joint Learning” approach to teaching negotiation. The emphasis ought to be on active learning by doing with the teacher playing the role of facilitator, interlocutor, and analyst.  Teachers should use a range of teaching strategies to enable students to build skills in negotiation, including activities to develop problem awareness/appreciation, facilitated review, and micro-skills practice, to name a few.  

Chris Argyris demonstrated that there is a cognitive gap between what we know and are able to see others doing, and what we ourselves do; further, we are often unaware of this gap (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith 1985).  As Patton puts it, we store analytic knowledge in a different part of our brain from our action repertoire.  Helping students overcome this gap requires building in-the-moment awareness and the neural pathways needed for new responses.

Patton and his associates devised micro-skill building exercises after realizing that negotiation students were able to critique other students when they did certain things incorrectly, but were completely unaware that they were doing the same things themselves.  The goal of micro-skills exercises is to be able to demonstrate the specific activities required to perform a specific negotiation skill when prompted and when appropriate.  By pulling apart these skills piece by piece, students can learn to reconstruct behaviors and perform a skillful combination of negotiation tasks. Through guided instruction, role-playing, and repetition, the micro-skills method enables students to devise new cognitive practices that bridge the gap between knowing/understanding and doing. 

Patton demonstrated how micro-skills exercises can help in teaching and conceptualizing the difficult task of active listening.   He explained, “Productive conversations do not involve 20 minutes of listening, followed by 20 minutes of sharing and telling your story. Rather, they move very rapidly between inquiring into and testing your understanding of what the other side said, and then sharing your response to that. . . .You are really digging into each other’s story.” To create an effective dialogue, you need three micro-skills of active listening: genuine inquiry, paraphrasing logic or meaning, and demonstrating empathy with feelings.   The skills are essential for any productive conversation as they “help the other side actually feel like you have heard them, and that at some point you have understood them … because if you want someone to listen to you, it is necessary for them to feel listened to.”

With his colleagues, Patton devised a simple two-sided scenario and a series of practice exercises to develop the needed skills.  In the first phase, one party acts as a “talker” and the other as a “listener,” with the talker initiating a provocative conversation and the listener asked to demonstrate one of the three active listening micro-skills by a “coach.”  Through repetition, the listener must gradually demonstrate an ability to produce each one of three micro-skills and understand the differences among them. 

The second phase of the exercise the listener and talker engage in a conversation in which the listener tries to combine the micro-skills to demonstrate understanding, but without revealing their own view.  The talker and coach are given an unpleasant imaginary buzzer and must “buzz” the listener whenever s/he accidentally reveals his/her own views.  Listeners’ brains quickly figure out how to avoid the buzzer, giving the listener the ability to recognize when their “listening” is being contaminated by their own view and turning into “spin.” 

By using such repetitive exercises to develop and reinforce neural pathways, or habits, the student is more likely to repeat these behaviors under pressure, as the brain favors well-traveled pathways. 

Micro-skills are just one part of a teacher’s overall approach to teaching negotiation, but they are a critical piece in enabling students to use critical skills under pressure in real situations.  

For more information on micro-skills management and other teaching approaches, go to:

Written by Orlee Rabin, and taken from the bi-annual e-newsletter Negotiation Pedagogy at the Program on Negotiation E-Newsletter (NP@PON), which can be found here.

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