Insights from a Communication and Negotiation Conference: The Benefits of Not Knowing

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

An Experiment: Exploring Interdisciplinary Linkages between Negotiation and Communication Studies

What would negotiation pedagogy look like if we focused more on the core meanings and practices of communication? How can understanding the underpinnings of communication – the components of conversation and the exchange of meaning – help us understand and improve our negotiations? The weekend of December 5, 2008, Negotiation Pedagogy at the Program on Negotiation (NP@PON) brought together leading scholars from the fields of communication, sociology, and management to tackle these and related questions.

In his opening remarks, Larry Susskind (MIT) explained that the symposium grew from the realization that, while communication is integral to negotiation, the negotiation field has rarely drawn from the academic disciplines that seek to define the various elements and processes of communication. By digging deeper into communication studies, the symposium aimed to uncover the potential gain of an interdisciplinary collaboration between negotiation and communication.

Conversation Analysis: Meanings and Patterns

Phillip Glenn (Emerson College) kicked things off by highlighting the contrast between traditional and more interactive definitions of communication. Traditional definitions describe communication as the exchange of messages between individuals: one individual crafts and conveys a message that is received, interpreted, and given a response by another individual. Glenn pointed out that this traditional characterization fails to capture the relational and interdependent aspects of communication. By emphasizing interaction, communication is re-framed as an active process of meaning making. An analysis that focuses on interaction posits that words, tone of voice, interruptions, and other aspects of conversation are not passive vehicles, but rather active forces in creating and understanding conversation. In this approach, individual actors are studied as “active sense-makers and sense-producers.” Careful study reveals how language use becomes systematic through interaction, allowing researchers to examine language in action as following patterns. The search for patterns is a shared interest of and potentially important linkage between communication and negotiation scholars.

To continue with the analysis of how word choice and use impacts ongoing dialogue, symposium attendees watched a short clip from a commercial lease contract negotiation role-play, then read a transcript, and then watched the video again. An important ground rule for participants was to avoid ascribing intention to why particular words were exchanged, and to focus instead on how the words and phrases themselves constructed and constrained the negotiation. At each table, there was a mix of communication and negotiation scholars who were then asked to analyze part of the transcript using conversation analysis techniques. Each participant was given a coding list to decipher transcription symbols. In order to avoid trying to “get into people’s heads,” they instead focused on identifying significant moves made through utterances and language sequences.

Being asked to analyze a negotiation without first thinking of it through the lens of negotiation may have felt like getting hands-on experience with one hand tied behind the back. But in describing what was happening at the minute level of one word or one short exchange, participants were being asked to do what they typically teach as expert negotiation practice. Bruce Patton (Harvard Negotiation Project) pointed out that negotiation trainers teach students to suspend judgment and focus instead on the impact and observable details of what happens as conversation unfolds. Conversation analysis brings this same lesson through a more micro-level attention to language.

“Bad” Negotiation and Mediation as Good Data

On the second day of the symposium, presentations moved from micro level conversation analysis to a macro-level more familiar to negotiation scholars. Doug Maynard (University of Wisconsin) analyzed the strategic moves made in a real estate negotiation between two parties. Some negotiation experts were concerned by the lack of collaborative strategies used in this particular conversation. Both agents relied on traditional bargaining that negotiation instructors teach is poor strategy. For some, negotiation theory was not only missing from the analysis, but also from the negotiation itself. This prompted a complaint that, “This is not negotiation!” and a response from communication scholars, “But these are the data.” As Maynard had noted the night before, the two communities were at times bringing different purposes to a study of the same patterns. While communication scholars examine patterns in order to reveal reasoning – the “how” of negotiation – negotiation scholars, as applied researchers, use described patterns to raise questions and evaluate negotiation with an eye toward prescription. The result is that the two communities can come up with a completely different take on the very same interaction.

A similar tension arose when participants reviewed and discussed a videotaped mediation session. The tape included a mediator whom participants thought was being directive, manipulative, and one-sided.  For mediation scholars and practitioners, this is the kind of bad mediation that they would never teach, but rather, they would teach students to avoid. But this was too much of an evaluative and imposed point for communication scholars, for whom “there are no accidents” in social interaction. Communication scholars prefer to allow data like this taped mediation to “speak for itself.” This approach stood in marked contrast to the negotiation practitioner’s idea of improving negotiations and building on best practices, and provided a clear example of how this symposium brought to the surface classic tensions between research focused on description and applied research intended for prescription.

Activating the Linkages: Applying Communication Research to Negotiation Pedagogy Practice

How might tension between basic research that seeks to describe, and applied negotiation research used to prescribe, help provide insight into negotiation practice? The conference concluded by calling attention to communication research’s application to negotiation and mediation research and pedagogy:

1. Use transcripts in teaching: Analysis of transcripts could be added to how instructors teach students to analyze and reflect on practice. Students might first examine actions and outcomes through transcripts, and then apply their analytic skills to become more aware of how they are creating meaning through their actions and reactions, and to better reflect after the exercise.

2. Translate the linguistic moves identified by conversation analysts into prescriptive tactics and strategy: Doug Maynard found three strategies in his real estate conversation analysis: defer, demur and deter. These strategies help speakers to influence the progress and meanings generated through conversation. Students could listen to a taped negotiation, discuss what strategies they heard, and then examine transcripts to see what more they might find. These strategies could then be examined both for how they improve and impede effective negotiation practice.

3. Bring questions of interest to communication scholars into negotiation pedagogy: Curtis LeBaron‘s (Brigham Young University) research suggests that the relationship between material objects and conversation in meaning making is dynamic and complex.  As an example he demonstrated how a police interrogation became a conversation about a series of artifacts, such as recorded witness accounts. This conversation, in turn, informed the meaning of these artifacts. In opposition to the truism that “the facts speak for themselves,” LeBaron’s research presentation showed “how discourse creates the material world and vice versa.” This analysis could be used by negotiation and mediation scholars to analyze how people communicate by using artifacts and how those artifacts (for example, a draft agreement as a text) then shape negotiation processes, meanings, and outcomes.

4. Use training in conversational analysis to help students better understand the interaction as it actually occurs: Negotiation instructors could train students in conversation and discourse analysis so that students study the words and phrases as they are being used, as well as the impact this usage has on the dialogue, rather than simply ascribing motivations and meanings to these choices.

Written by Alexandra Crampton and Jessica Corsi, 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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