From the Symphony Hall to the Jazz Jam Session: Teaching negotiation to graduate students vs. providing negotiation training to senior executives: Quite Similar or Very Different?

By — on / Pedagogy at PON

Negotiation Pedagogy Faculty Dinner Seminar, November 14th, 2011

Panelists: Theodore Johnson (Brandeis University), Deborah Kolb(Simmons College), Deepak Malhotra (Harvard Business School),Brian Mandell (Harvard Kennedy School of Government), Melissa Manwaring (Babson College), Bruce Patton (Vantage Partners), and James Sebenius (Harvard Business School). Moderated byMichael Wheeler (Harvard Business School)

The fall Negotiation Pedagogy Faculty Dinner Seminar took place at the Harvard Faculty Club on November 14, 2011. The event brought together more than 30 leading scholars and teachers from Boston-area business schools, law schools, schools of public policy and planning, and other organizations for a lively discussion on how the contexts in which we teach influence what we teach and the ways in which we teach negotiation. The point of departure was teaching in traditional graduate school courses versus tailored training in business or governmental organizations. It was soon clear, however, that there are a great many hybrids in between, like open-enrollment executive education courses. Furthermore, there are a variety of pedagogical approaches that can be used in each of these settings.

Time and goal

Bruce Patton kicked off the panel by introducing two variables along which teaching activities might be located:How long do we have with the participants, and whether the goal is to teach them about something (give them a set of concepts) or how to do something (to master a skill). Appropriateness pedagogically depends on where we are along each of these axes.

For example, if we have a short amount of time with an academic audience, and the goal is to teach them about something, a successful intervention might involve a lecture conveying five key principles that present the concept. In contrast, if we have a long time to teach students about an issue in an academic context, the goal might be not only to present more material in greater depth, but also to get students theorizing about the open questions in the area of study themselves.

If we have a short amount of time and a client is paying for help to address a very specific problem, we need to help them identify and develop the behavioral assets that are going to have the highest immediate impact. This involves getting them to do things differently right away, regardless of whether or not they fully understand why the change in practice is necessary. If we have a longer period of time, and an audience that wants to learn how, the intervention might involve more skills-based exercises coupled with rigorous and comprehensive reflection.


The importance of context was a recurring theme throughout the event. One aspect of context is whose environment you are operating in. William Ury observed: “When you are the teacher in the classroom, you are the insider, you know the field, and the students are the outsiders getting to know your culture. When you are [working with] a company, you are the outsider, they are the insiders, they have the local knowledge that you don’t have; you bring a general framework, they bring local knowledge and you have to find some way in which that local and general knowledge can produce synergy. There is a ritual experience going on where there are defined roles, and the roles are very different in these two contexts.”

Lawrence Susskind concurred, noting that because you are in their context, that is typically the exclusive focus of attention when dealing directly with an organization. In contrast, various contexts may be referred to in a classroom setting for illustrative purposes, but they are just that – they serve as hypotheticals while the lessons are generalized.

On a similar note, James Sebenius highlighted the important difference between what is valued and what the goals are in the academic versus non-academic worlds. Sebenius asserted that: “In academics, and the type of mind that is often drawn there, you are rewarded for generalizations, and the more powerful and the more spare, the better. In the world, you are rewarded for solving particular problems, and that is a very different task.” We need to appreciate these differences and deliver as appropriate in each context. Brian Mandell reinforced this point, noting that practitioners are typically not interested in our theories – they want our “war stories.” Practitioners are also typically less patient and expect us to pass the “sniff test” early in the relationship, while the relationship with students in an academic setting typically takes longer to unfold.

Deepak Malhotra cautioned that, regardless of the context, we should be careful to consider participants holistically to maximize learning. “Perhaps the most sacred relationship is between teacher and student. The moment you start treating your student as either a customer or a client, whether they are [in school] or at an organization, I think something gets excised,” said Malhotra. Even when the short-term expectation is that we are going to help them do better on a looming deal, we need to help our students to think more about how they are going to create lasting value and make a positive difference.

Course design

How we approach the design of a course is also dependent on context. Melissa Manwaring noted that we typically design academic courses up-front with some flexibility based on how students respond, but there is little opportunity for true co-design. In contrast, trainings done for organizations typically involve quite a bit of tailoring to the particular situation and needs. She typically uses diagnostic surveys up front to get input. This tailoring and attention do not reflect greater concern for corporate clients (than for students), but rather recognition that they face a complex set of preexisting problems, norms and politics that the trainings must address. While certainly not context or problem-free, graduate students are in a “culture of learning and reflecting” in which they are less “patterned” and more open to what teachers have to share. Theodore Johnson concurred that professional courses require much more tailoring. He noted that professional audiences expect trainers to clearly articulate a value proposition based on a serious examination of their particular needs and informed by knowledge of the organization and their industry. There is a greater need to be on target and high-energy, and often less opportunity to be deliberative.

Brian Mandell stated that he thinks of his “degree program courses as unfolding, carefully orchestrated symphonies [and] the outside work […] more as improvisational jazz.” While more preparation is typically required for professional trainings, particularly given the limited time available, they also need to be very responsive. Mandell often uses a clinical format in professional trainings, giving the group a general outline, and then working through a process of shared learning, drawing out contextual specifics with them. Alternatively he will go “totally tactical,” giving audiences very practical lessons on how to deal with the concrete issues they face. Either way, Mandell typically finds professional audiences much less patient. The challenge is how to provide them with the key messages in a ‘sticky’ way in a short amount of time such that they can take them back to their work and apply them in the face of ever-changing conditions.

James Sebenius admitted that, in the academic classroom environment, he is ‘selfish’ in his teaching, and that this is what sustains him. He frequently uses classes as a way to work through issues that he is trying to better understand. Said Sebenius:

“For example, I’m interested in the relationship between auctions and negotiations. I’ll probably stick together half a dozen cases that are faithful to the underlying reality, bring a fair bit of theory to it, then put them together and see what starts to emerge. Having that sustained conversation, I frequently find myself crystallized on things that weren’t a priori obvious, but I really have to think hard about it if I am going to teach it, and in the conversations what I think is a good idea often falls flat, and what I think is sort of obvious is really a point that is central.”

Of course, Sebenius also tries to learn from his non-academic teaching, but the lessons are very different. It is not about sustained conversations in the same way as it is in a class, but about working with clients to understand their barriers and how they can improve their organizational capacity.


The issue of how courses are evaluated was also discussed. Deborah Kolb uses relatively unstructured role-play exercises that she calls negotiating next week towards the end of workshops to give participants the opportunity to practice what they have learned and confirm whether or not it has had an impact. Lawrence Susskind noted that he likes to reach back out to professional course attendees six to eight weeks later via e-mail to ask them what they have been doing differently as a result of the training and how it appears to have impacted their organization.

In the academic classroom context, more structured means of evaluation, like tests and papers, are used to evaluate both students and the efficacy of pedagogy. According to Susskind, evaluating open-enrollment executive education courses can be particularly challenging, since there is often no shared context – as we have with training inside a specific organization – nor the broader learning objectives and longer time together that is typical of an academic environment.

Returning to the key variables, Robert Mnookin noted that, in addition to the length of time and goal, the number of participants is an important factor in structuring evaluation. When we are teaching semester-long courses we have the time for detailed observation and feedback. This is not possible in a three-day course for dozens of people. Some observation and personalized attention is possible in shorter courses with much smaller audiences.

From polishing symphonies to preparing for improvisational jazz, the pedagogical approaches taken by negotiation instructors are as diverse as the contexts in which we operate. The variety of situations and expectations demand diversity, but much can also be learned from comparisons within each instructional category and across major divisions. The Negotiation Pedagogy Faculty Dinner provided an opportunity to talk candidly about the assumptions that underlie our pedagogy. This is sure to be a conversation that will continue.

Written for NP@PON by Todd Schenk.

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