Lessons from the Harvard Program on Negotiation

For this essay, I reinterpreted and reorganized parts of the Harvard course material — and drew on some of my own experiences, examples, and ideas — solely for educational purposes under Fair Use. I also asked for and got Harvard’s permission to write this. So: Please don’t sue me, Harvard. Please.

I was lucky enough to have the employer-sponsored opportunity to participate in the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Given that the program took place during a global pandemic — if you’re reading this in the year 3000 or later, I am referring to the coronavirus pandemic that began in early 2020; I know you have since survived many other pandemics, plus apocalyptic global warming, and I know you’re probably not even a human — , it had to be online.

Normally, I dislike online learning and much prefer to learn in person. However, this program was an exception to the rule. I got to be classmates with fascinating people from literally all over the real world, and I learned how to better apply negotiation principles within the digital world, which is certainly useful.

More generally, I learned many lessons in the art and science of negotiation.

Here are six of the lessons I learned from the Harvard Program on Negotiation:

Lesson 1: Have a negotiation framework.
Lesson 2: Listen, paraphrase, inquire, acknowledge.
Lesson 3: Interests over positions.
Lesson 4: Prioritize subjective value.
Lesson 5: Focus on individual culture.
Lesson 6: Reality is not bilateral.

A framework is useful in any discipline because it helps you interpret a situation in such a way that the situation itself can guide your actions.

This is true in writing, music, comedy, and, of course, negotiation.

I like to divide frameworks into two categories: terminology and strategy. Let’s look at both for negotiation.

1.Terminology

Negotiation terminology refers to the words and phrases you use to interpret a real-world negotiation situation.

Here is some basic negotiation terminology I learned from the Harvard Program on Negotiation (and also from a negotiation course I took at Carnegie Mellon University during graduate school, and also from a few books on negotiation):

  • RV (Reservation Value): What is your limit? What are the limits for the other side? RV refers to the limit a negotiator is willing to get to before they decide to walk away. If the absolute most you are willing to pay for an electric guitar is $1,000, then your RV in that situation is $1,000.
  • AV (Aspirational Value): What do you desire? What does the other side desire? AV refers to what a negotiator aspires to get from a negotiation. If you are willing to pay $1,000 for an electric guitar but would love to pay $700 so you could have some money left over, then your AV in that situation is $700. Your AV can be ambitious, but it should also be realistic and justifiable.
  • BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement): What is your best alternative in case a negotiation doesn’t work out?¹ What is the other side’s best alternative? If you can’t negotiate an agreement for the electric guitar, your BATNA may be saving a bit more money to buy one from an established guitar shop; the other side’s BATNA may be selling the guitar to someone else, or ultimately choosing to keep it.
  • ZOPA (Zone of Potential Agreement): How is a deal possible? The ZOPA is the zone that contains the range of possible agreements. If the most you are willing to pay for the guitar is $1,000 and the least the seller is willing to sell it for is $700, then there is a ZOPA — meaning an agreement is possible — , and it comprises all the values in the range from $700 to $1,000.

Let’s bring this terminology together with the guitar example, in which you want to buy an electric guitar from someone else:

RV | Yours=$1,000 (this is the most you’re willing to pay) | Theirs=$700 (you believe this is the least they’re willing to sell for; you can improve your estimate by asking questions and doing thorough research)

AV | Yours=$700 (this is what you would like to pay; it’s justifiable, it’s realistic, and it’ll save you some money) | Theirs=$1,400 (based on your questions and research, you believe this is their aspirational sales price)

BATNA | Yours=buy elsewhere or give up playing guitar (these are your best alternatives in case the negotiation falls apart) | Theirs=sell elsewhere or keep the guitar (you think these are their best alternatives in case the negotiation falls apart)

ZOPA | Sale for $700 — $1,000 (based on the above, there is certainly a ZOPA, and this is it)

Feel free to create and use your own original negotiation terminology!

Now, on putting your terminology to good use…

2.Strategy

Negotiation strategy refers to how you prepare for and approach a negotiation situation.

Every negotiator is different and every negotiation is different, so it would be irresponsible and unrealistic for me to recommend specific strategies.

What I can do is share the following general strategies, which I strive to always apply:

Before a negotiation, write out, in detail, how you plan to approach the negotiation. This preparation should include an analysis of the situation using your preferred terminology. This is like creative writing in that it’s all up to you; you can shape your approach however you want.

During a negotiation, refer to your strategy and stay open. This is like stand-up comedy in that you have your material as a reference, and, at the same time, you’re staying open to what’s happening in the room.

After a negotiation, analyze how your approach performed. This is like recording yourself playing the guitar in that you have to be able to objectively take in what you did right, what you could do better, and what you’d like to keep in mind for next time, because there is always a next time. Except when you die. But that only happens once, so don’t worry. I digress…

Commit to this three-step strategy for each negotiation! It can only make you better over time.

Have a negotiation framework.

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

A cloudy, glorious day at Harvard; inside those walls, bright minds are discussing how a particular individual must not be sued for writing this essay.

Listen, paraphrase, inquire, acknowledge.

I constantly remind myself of these four words using the acronym LPIA.

Most if not all negotiations will have triggering moments, which is where LPIA is really useful.

The three most common human responses to triggers are all unproductive:

  1. Surrender: This is when a salesperson pushes you in some way to make a purchase you can’t or simply do not want to make, and, to avoid a conflict, you surrender and give them what they want.
  2. Playing the game: This is when your friend starts criticizing your taste in movies because they don’t want to watch the movie you really want to watch, so you play the game and begin to criticize their taste.
  3. Quitting the game: My personal favorite. This is when the woman you’re dating is wishy-washy about her interest in you, so you quit the game and fully get over her without first trying to have an open conversation about the situation.

Surrender is unproductive because it negates your needs in a negotiation, and it encourages predatory behavior on the other side. In the example above, you just bought something you didn’t want or need, and that pushy salesperson feels like a winner, and they may not even be aware that they were pushy.

Playing the game is unproductive because it distracts all parties from the real issue, while simultaneously harming the relationship. In the example above, you and your friend still haven’t agreed on which movie you’re going to watch, and by the time you’re done criticizing each other, you might no longer be friends.

Quitting the game, though seemingly “cool” at first glance, is equally unproductive, because you leave a negotiation when there might still be a lot of potential value for all parties involved, and you also rob all parties of valuable lessons. In the example above, you just got over someone who might have been very interested in you but was also very shy and found it difficult to express her interest. You also robbed her of the lesson that her shyness comes off as disinterest, and you robbed yourself of the lesson that it’s best to try to address things openly before jumping to conclusions and making a unilateral decision.²

To allow for better responses when facing triggers, remember to LPIA.

LPIA will allow you to respond more effectively, perhaps by using one of the following three types of moves:

  1. Reframing Moves: This is when you’re a record label and you tell your recording artist (see the example in Lesson 3) that, though it seems on the surface that you both want the same thing and only one of you can get it, the reality is that your true interests are different and reconcilable, so it would be better to reframe the negotiation in terms of those interests and away from your conflicting positions.
  2. Name the Game Moves: This is when an ex-girlfriend tries to psychologically coerce you into getting back together with her because she’s “just about to start seeing other guys,” and you tell her, “Normally, I would allow myself to be drawn into the passionate but unhealthy dynamic of which I was an active participant, but now I have completed the Harvard Program on Negotiation, so I’m just going to name the game here; it seems like you’re trying to make me jealous as a way to coerce me into getting back together with you, which is not exactly the type of behavior that would inspire me to want us to get back together.” This situation happened to a friend, of course…
  3. Change the Players: This is when your salesperson at a car dealership is disrespectful, and you ask their manager to assign you a salesperson whose presence you can actually tolerate. This move is risky, so only use it as a last resort.

When faced with a trigger (and even when not), remember to listen, paraphrase, inquire, and acknowledge.

LPIA!

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Here is distinguished Harvard Law School professor Sheila Heen on how to manage the crucial negotiation with your internal voice. Sheila was a guest speaker for the Harvard PON session I participated in, and her guest spot literally changed my life, as it helped me get over the guilt of ending a few relationships that just had to end. Thank you again, Sheila!

Many negotiations unnecessarily go awry due to a lack of differentiation between interests and positions.

Positions are explicit. These are the stands people take.

Interests tend to be implicit. These are people’s true wants and needs.

To grow as a negotiator, avoid getting bogged down in positions. Instead, strategically share your interests, and also try to learn the other side’s interests.

Let’s illustrate this lesson with an example.

Suppose you are a record label, and you are negotiating with one of your recording musical artists.

The main issue at hand is the ownership of the master recordings for the artist’s upcoming album.

Your artist wants to fully own their master recordings.

You, as the record label, also want to fully own the master recordings.

Is an agreement possible?

If you stay on the surface-level of positions, then no, obviously. Both sides’ positions are directly opposed; the master recordings cannot be fully owned by each side at the same time.

Thankfully, you now know to look beyond positions and into interests. So: Why does the artist want to own the masters? Why does the label want the same thing?

In this example, the artist wants to own the masters because they cannot imagine not owning them. It’s a matter of emotion. Those are their songs, their recordings. They put their life into them. How could they just give them away?

And in this example, the record label wants to own the masters so they can monetize them, earn back their initial investment in the production, and hopefully also make a profit.

Aha! A situation of non-negotiable positions becomes a situation of reconcilable interests.

The artist wants to own the masters because said ownership is deeply meaningful to them. The label wants to own the masters because they want to make money.

Perhaps there is a solution wherein the artist retains full legal ownership of the masters while granting the label an exclusive license to monetize the masters for a period of time that would allow the label to recoup their investment and also make a good profit.

And both sides lived happily ever after.

Or not. But the exploration of underlying interests was still worth it!

Interests over positions.

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

A pensive, snowy day at Harvard, where a particular individual is definitely not being sued for writing this essay. Please.

Subjective value (how a negotiation makes you and the other side feel) can often have more value than objective value (the tangible or measurable result of a negotiation).

In fact, desire to do business again seems to not depend on objective value at all, but rather on subjective value!

Positive subjective value correlates with long-term relationship success and long-term higher objective value.

Let’s look at an example.

I want to produce a recording of a song I wrote. I am not a mixing engineer, and I am not a mastering engineer, so I will have to hire out to fill each role. I’m an independent musician, and I want to own the master recording in full.

The mixing engineer I met at a conference was awesome, and I like their work. We agree on a price. All that’s left before getting started is for them to sign the work-for-hire agreement that includes all the terms of ownership and payment. “What the hell is wrong with you?” they say. “I thought we were gonna have fun with this project, and now you’re pulling up contracts? I don’t know if I can do this. Let me talk to my sister. I’ll get back to you next week.” Weeks pass. Months. Ten years later, the mixing engineer calls you and says, “Hey, my sister told me to tell you that she doesn’t know what the hell is wrong with you. Give me one more week.” He hangs up. Ten years for this? I decide to move on.

The mastering engineer I cold-called was awesome. They actually remastered one of my favorite albums ever, which is why I thought to contact them. We agree on a price. All that’s left before getting started is for them to sign the work-for-hire agreement that includes all the terms of ownership and payment. They call me and say, “Manny, you know, I came up in the music business back when contracts were unnecessary formalities. A handshake was all it took. I’ve worked on many classic records on the basis of a handshake, and I have never had any issues. However, it does seem that you need my signature in order to properly register your copyright, and I respect that you want to be by-the-book with these things. Unfortunately, it’s just not how I work, but I am sure your project will turn out great.”

What happened in this example? Nothing. Literally. I still have to find a mixing engineer, and I still have to find a mastering engineer. Though, come to think of it, in each case, nothing happened quite differently.

With the mixing engineer, the objective value was zero: no agreement. The subjective value, however, was clearly negative. They were accusatory, assumed the worst, attempted to gaslight me, played coy, and wasted ten years of my life. Unless we have an open, clarifying, miraculous conversation at some point, future collaboration is unlikely.

With the mastering engineer, the objective value was also zero: no agreement. The subjective value, however, was positive! They were honest, upfront, respectful, graceful, and professional. We were fundamentally incompatible to collaborate on this project, but perhaps we can coincide for a different project, and I would also be happy to recommend them to someone else. Either way, future collaboration is possible.

This example shows that, even when objective value is nonexistent, subjective value can still have a long-term impact.

Prioritize subjective value!³

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

This clip sets the stage for a perfect real-life example of prioritized subjective value. In it, Ahmet Ertegun, legendary record-man and songwriter, responds with understanding and friendly pride to Ray Charles’ leaving Atlantic Records. In 1977, a full 17 years later, Ahmet Ertegun was able to sign Ray Charles once again. Subjective value!

Culture in negotiation — and in life — can be understood via two extremes.

One is Human Universality. This is what we all have in common.

The other is Cultural Relativity. This captures our differences.

We should focus on the point that sits between these extremes: Human Complexity, or as I like to call it, Individual Culture.

To learn someone’s Individual Culture, do this: Listen, paraphrase, inquire, and acknowledge (see Lesson 2).

LPIA! LPIA! LPIA!

Be very careful with cultural projections and cultural stereotypes.

Cultural projections involve judging another person or culture from the limited perspective of your own culture, with no regard to their legitimate idiosyncrasies.

For example, as of this writing, I live in the United States, and this country has given me the opportunity to create my own life, so I truly love it and am grateful for it. At the same time, US foreign policy is concerning because it has become so mediatized that it’s just a bunch of projections: “That other country isn’t acting exactly how we want them to act, nor are they acting exactly how we think we would act under the same circumstances; therefore, this must mean that they are crazy, irrational, stupid, and evil, and we are the good guys here, anyone who doesn’t agree is a traitor, woo, yeah, they must be destroyed, we are perfect; go, team!”

Cultural stereotypes involve assuming that a unique individual is exactly like what you think their general culture is like.

For example: “Americans always negotiate aggressively and Latin Americans are always more passive.” Things can get really awkward when multiple sides act on cultural stereotypes, like a Latin American negotiator doing a bad impression of what they think is an aggressive American negotiator, at the same time as their negotiation partner, an American negotiator, does a bad impression of what they think is a passive Latin American negotiator.

Avoid projections and stereotypes, and remember: LPIA!⁴

Focus on individual culture.

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Harvard Law School has reached a verdict: A particular individual can write this essay, as long as he acknowledges that it’s based on the Harvard Program on Negotiation course material, just as it had already been discussed between Harvard and said individual prior to the writing of this essay; he just used the hypothetical threat of a Harvard lawsuit as a comedic device. Justice! Freedom!

One is never negotiating with only one other person or one other side.

Consider the following possible negotiations:

  • The negotiation with yourself.
  • The negotiation with your own side.
  • The other side’s negotiation with their side.
  • The negotiation with other active or potential stakeholders.
  • The negotiation with your community.
  • The negotiation with your customers or fans.
  • The negotiation with your family.

There are always other active negotiations that occur at the same time as the one you are mainly focused on.

If you ask for a salary raise at a job, know that your manager will discuss your request with at least one other person, just as you will probably discuss it with at least one peer or mentor.

If you have an important disagreement in a relationship, know that the other person will talk about it with at least one other person, just as you are likely to talk about it with someone else.

The best way to deal with this non-bilateral reality is simply to accept it and be aware of it. Acceptance and awareness will properly guide your actions in most situations.

Furthermore, there are several tools you can use to deal with this reality:

  1. Create a network map: Take a pen and a piece of paper and literally draw out the connections between people in a given negotiation situation. Who is connected to whom? Who supports which side? Who is on your side, no matter what? Draw things out, and see the situation as it is.
  2. Prepare: Do thorough research on the diverse parties. Ask questions to understand which secondary negotiations may be occurring. Use your negotiation framework (see Lesson 1). Do your best to anticipate potential opportunities and challenges involving all concurrent negotiations.
  3. Build strategic alliances: Create mutually beneficial relationships. Find commonalities. Be open-minded and consider allying with individuals or groups who may trigger in you some cultural projections or stereotypes (see Lesson 5). Accept that your alliance attempts may be rejected, and be comfortable rejecting others’ attempts to ally with you.
  4. Seek to understand the situational dynamics: Become an observer of situational dynamics, and let your findings guide your actions. “When the leader of the other side speaks, his supposed partners look away; why?” “My supposed enemy keeps trying to connect with me; why? Perhaps there’s an opening to fix the relationship and the issue?” “My team doesn’t seem to be supporting me. Is there something I’m not seeing?” And so on.

Reality is not bilateral!

Thank you, Harvard Program on Negotiation.

The cast of Friends successfully built a strategic alliance to negotiate their TV contracts.
The character of Kathryn Pinewood of Parks and Recreation introduces “the consumer” as an invisible stakeholder in this negotiation, and it works as a deflecting strategy to not have to directly respond to the claims of her negotiation partner, Leslie Knope. Note: This would be a great opportunity for Leslie to use a Name the Game move (see Lesson 2) and call out Kathryn on what she’s doing!

Let’s review. Here are six lessons from the Harvard Program on Negotiation:

Lesson 1: Have a negotiation framework.
Lesson 2: Listen, paraphrase, inquire, acknowledge.
Lesson 3: Interests over positions.
Lesson 4: Prioritize subjective value.
Lesson 5: Focus on individual culture.
Lesson 6: Reality is not bilateral.

For this essay, I only wrote on six of the many lessons I learned from the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

If you have the opportunity to participate in this awesome program, do it! It is certainly worth it.

If you do not have the opportunity to participate in this program — I am aware of how lucky I am — , that is perfectly okay! Please remember that negotiation, like many complex skills, is mostly learned through experience; and experience, though sometimes challenging to acquire, is mostly free. I have also included an Appendix at the end of this essay with recommendations for books that may help you to improve your negotiation skills at an affordable price, because having a good theoretical base will serve to better direct your experience.

Happy negotiating!

Remember to enjoy the learning process — which never ends — and to experience negotiation as something fun.

I will now go continue to live my life, which is, thankfully, completely free of any lawsuits from Harvard.

  1. Here is an idea I’m passionate about: You always have alternatives, even if they’re not direct alternatives. If you can’t get an acceptable offer for a job you really want, you can settle for the best offer they can give you, or you can curse the heavens, or you can go for another job, or you can take a sabbatical to heal yourself and your relationships, or you can use it as motivation to learn new skills and languages, or you can use it as a sign that now is the time to invest more in your entrepreneurial ventures, or you can let it help you realize that you’re in the wrong industry or city, etc. If you can’t fix your romantic relationship, then you can settle for an unhappy relationship, or you can keep trying to fix it, or you can end it abruptly and date a bunch of random people, or you can end it kindly and choose to stay single for at least a year, or you can use it as a sign that you two may just be incompatible, or you can become jaded and lose all hope in love, or you can acknowledge and learn from your mistakes and be a better partner and partner-chooser for your next relationship, etc. The alternatives are always infinite. Just let yourself be open to them.
  2. Quitting the game is only unproductive when used lightly or as a reactive first resort, not when quitting is actually the best thing to do. If you do your best to try to address a situation and find that quitting the game is indeed the best way forward, then definitely quit! Life is finite, and better situations await.
  3. You do not have to sacrifice objective value or dismiss your needs! Don’t let people take advantage of you because you’re kind, and don’t suppress your own needs in order to keep others happy. Sometimes you do have to be disagreeable and risk losing subjective value. It’s a tricky balance. Just do your best to manage it. You can do it!
  4. What exactly does it mean to LPIA? Listen is taking in the present moment, undistracted by judgements or thinking about what you’re going to say next. Paraphrase is validating what someone else says, by rewording it, e.g., “So you’re saying I shouldn’t have put ketchup on your ice cream. Did I understand you correctly?” Inquire is being curious and asking questions, e.g., “What bothered you, exactly? Help me understand. Was it the ketchup itself?” Acknowledge is pointing out and affirming someone else’s emotional experience, e.g., “I can see you felt betrayed when I did that thing with the ketchup.”
  • Difficult Conversations by Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone & Bruce Patton
  • Negotiation Genius by Deepak Malhotra & Max Bazerman
  • Beyond Reason by Daniel Shapiro and Roger Fisher
  • Influence by Robert Cialdini
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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