I’ve been teaching negotiation at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. Time flies when you are doing something rewarding and fun. This week I learned that I have again won the William G. Whitney Award for Distinguished Teaching. As was true in the past, I feel grateful and honored to be selected.
Year in and year out, I challenge my classes to examine the teacher-student relationship through the lens of a negotiation. While I believe it a valuable way of examining what is going on in any classroom, it is a sure bet in a negotiation course. With that in mind, what lessons can a negotiator draw from a successful teacher? Let me suggest a few using me as the guinea pig.
Preparation – Good negotiators always prepare as much as possible. My life as a teacher of negotiation starts with a simple fact: I had the foremost professors in the world in my subject. The scholars gathered together at the Harvard Program on Negotiation were truly extraordinary. Learning from them was not only great training but also laid down a very easy path for me to follow. It seems to me that a tremendous advantage in becoming a great teacher is having been the student of great teachers. I was lucky enough to have some of the best preparation imaginable.
Best Among Many Options – Experts create many possible options before choosing the best ones upon which to structure the deal. In the classroom, I was introduced by my teachers to the idea that interactive learning is highly effective. Most of the relevant classes I took at Harvard were taught, at least in part, utilizing negotiation simulation cases. I have followed that model and structure my own classes around such “games.” The result is that the lessons stick and the learning is exciting. Negotiation, in particular, is best learned by negotiating. Among the best options for an instructor is to structure the course around students’ needs as well as her own. Everyone benefits and everyone is happier.
Communication – The best negotiators work constantly to improve the quality and effectiveness of their communication. To this end, I want a classroom environment that is positive and encouraging. It is worth extra effort to create a safe, inclusive, and enjoyable place for students to learn. To the fullest extent possible, I encourage collaboration and emphasize that “we are all here to learn together.” Hopefully this both lets students know that learning is prized and encourages them to work together at advancing it.
Commitment – Sometimes it is necessary for a negotiator to promise the other side procedural comfort in a binding way. An example in the classroom is to pledge behavior that will avoid student embarrassment. For example, high pressure teaching methods such as “cold calling” can challenge not only a student’s knowledge but also her desire to attend class. When I call on people, they are given plenty of room to “take a pass.” Making this clear up front has resulted in a happier and less stressful classroom experience.
Relationships – Negotiations are full of consequential relationship issues and working to improve their quality is always worthwhile. With regard to my teaching, it is sometimes as simple as letting my affection for students show. Ever since my years as a summer camp counselor, I have been delighted to work with young people. My students are, for the most part, magnificent and I am deeply honored (and lucky) to be given the opportunity to guide them. Most people like to be liked and students are no exception. There is little doubt a college class is better received by students who feel affirmed and appreciated. Such relationship-building is as valuable in the classroom as it is at the negotiating table.
Interests – Ultimately, negotiators learn that the best way to get others to do what you want is to give them what they want. College students desire many things but high among their priorities is to avoid being bored. I use humor and playfulness wherever I can to spice up the learning experience. Always taking care, though, to avoid having any student be the butt of the joke. On the other hand, self deprecating humor is highly appreciated by young adults and it also reminds me not to take myself too seriously. So adding a little bit of fun to the classroom makes the place more likely to meet everyone’s interests.
In the end, I put it to you this way. The very habits that guide good negotiators can help to make a teacher more successful as well.