Adapted from “Learning to Learn,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Learning about a concept or technique is one thing. Actually putting new knowledge to work is quite another. The gap between “knowing” and “doing” is a challenge for managers who want to hone their effectiveness, whether through formal training or private reflection on their experience.
Recent research indicates that just reading about abstract principles—such as how to expand the pie in negotiation—doesn’t enable people to put them to practical use. Providing relevant examples is somewhat more helpful, but didactic instruction isn’t nearly as effective as other learning methods.
Debriefing—doing a postmortem to identify missed opportunities—can be much more powerful. This is easier in the classroom than in real life, however. In negotiation exercises, participants can subsequently see what cards the other side held during the drill and thus learn how value might have been created. In actual negotiations, though, we seldom know the other party’s priorities, so it’s harder to play “what if” scenarios.
A more promising mode of learning is observation. In a recent study by Janice Nadler, Leigh Thompson, and Leaf Van Boven, participants watched a videotape in which negotiators exchanged information about their interests and crafted a win-win solution, while a control group read about tradeoffs and integrative bargaining. Participants wrote down their assessment of what they had seen in the video and then negotiated a case themselves. Interestingly, although they were unable to articulate exactly what they had learned, the participants who watched the video were able to create significantly more joint gains than the control group that had merely read about tradeoffs and integrative bargaining.
Another group that was given two short negotiation vignettes before doing the exercise also performed well. For these subjects, vivid illustrations proved more useful than explicit rules. These findings suggest that sharpening our ability to analogize is a promising route for practical learning.
Using the methods of debriefing, observation, and analogies, effective negotiators look beyond the superficial differences between cases and spot the real drivers of creativity and success at the bargaining table.
Interesting article! My students always ask my advice for good books, articles, websites on negotiation. I help them with reading list and I never forget to mention: practice, practice and do the evaluation!