Lessons from the Harvard Program on Negotiation

Lesson 1: Have a negotiation framework.

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.

  • 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.
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.

Lesson 2: Listen, paraphrase, inquire, acknowledge.

Listen, paraphrase, inquire, acknowledge.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  1. 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…
  2. 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.
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!

Lesson 3: Interests over positions.

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

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

Lesson 4: Prioritize subjective value.

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).

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!

Lesson 5: Focus on individual culture.

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

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!

Lesson 6: Reality is not bilateral.

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

  • 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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!


  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.”

AppendixBook Recommendations

  • 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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Manny Vallarino

Manny Vallarino

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