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Hey folks! Thanks for joining us on another episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are continuing our conversation with Major Travis Cyphers, an Army officer and a negotiations expert at the United States Military Academy at West Point. If you haven’t already checked out Part A of this episode, be sure to do that first.
As a disclaimer, we must mention that the views expressed on this episode are solely those of Travis and not the US Army.
With that said, let’s jump into the conversation with Major Cyphers.
In his role as the Director of the West Point Negotiation Project, Travis is flooded with requests to support negotiation training for different types of units across the service branches. Therefore, part of his role includes teaching negotiation to units like the special forces and the security force assistant brigades, and equipping them with the skills to negotiate with foreign partners who may not be directly under their command.
One of the achievements that Travis is truly proud of is the successful run of the West Point Negotiation Project Cadet Workshop. Interestingly, it is a course that Aram had initiated a decade earlier, during his stint as director. Although the event was canceled in 2020, it did well the next year with 50 USMA and 47 ROTC cadets. It exposed cadets from different commissioning sources who will be future officers together in the United States Army but might not understand what other people’s experience looks like.
Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, was the chief speaker for the event. He discussed the negotiations they have with the Basketball Players Association and the union for the players. Also, how they think about those negotiations and preparation forums, how they build consensus and build relationships.
Travis has also led his cadets at a National Undergraduate Negotiation Competition, which helped them understand the preparation and think through their and the counter party’s interests. His leadership skills and experience helped his cadets work through negotiation strategies effortlessly in the competition, which led to their success.
Another achievement that Major Cyphers holds very dear to his heart is helping the Civil Affairs branch of the US Army identify challenges with their negotiation training and helping them restructure their training pipeline and build credibility.
Travis highlights that negotiation is a process, and anything that is a process can be learned and improved. He also emphasizes the importance of preparation, which helps one shape the outcome one will get through skillful negotiations.
Apart from that, Travis firmly believes that we negotiate every day. He wants his students to be open to the fact that they might be wrong to analyze a situation and realize that the counterparty might reach a completely different conclusion than they did.
This way, they can be empathetic to that person’s situation, conclusion, and emotions. And once they are empathetic to their counterparty, they can tackle whatever problem they are facing and work to resolve it. This saves both parties the hassle of competing hard to win, ensuring they both leave the table happy.
Travis, Aram, and Nolan discuss a lot more on this episode of the NEGOTIATEx Podcast. Write to us at email@example.com and share your thoughts on this very informational podcast episode.
Nolan Martin : Hey everyone, thanks for joining us on the NegotiateX podcast. We are continuing our conversation with Travis Cyphers, an army officer in West Point, negotiations professor. If you haven't already checked out part A of this episode, be sure to do that first. Let's jump in the conversation.
Before we start today's episode, just need to let you know that, again, these are the views of Major Travis Cyphers and not that of the Army.
So, the West Point Negotiation Project, it was established in 2009 to serve as the outreach that we kind of already discussed. But what are some of the other things that y'all are doing? Just cause I think it's so great to highlight the different opportunities that the military members have for access.
Major Travis Cyphers : In my role as the director of the West Point Negotiation Project, honestly, I'm inundated with requests to support negotiation training from all different types of units. So, I do a lot of outreach to military units to teach negotiation principles and most of those to be honest, or with our advisors.
So, whether it's the civil affairs community, which I think we're gonna talk about a little bit, the special forces community or our security force assistance brigades. Going to those units that are getting ready to step out the door where they're gonna have to negotiate with foreign partners that they can't necessarily order around on their training, how they're training and what implementation looks like.
The event that I'm honestly proudest of though is the West Point Negotiation Project Cadet Workshop. And so it's something that Aram started while he was here and has grown over by different directors of this project but Covid could have honestly killed that.
In 2020, we canceled the workshop because of COVID and in 2021, we ran it here but with just USMA cadets and it was a much more scaled down version. As we discussed in my intro, I'm not a West Point graduate, I'm a commissioner from an ROTC University, University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse, a very small regional campus that so many of these opportunities that ROTC cadets just pale in comparison to what's available here at USMA to West Point Cadets and very passionately I pushed to reinvigorate this workshop.
So, last year we were able to bring almost a hundred cadets together, about 50 USMA cadets, and then 47 ROTC and Air Force Cadets attended. And I was really excited to provide this, to give an opportunity to these ROTC cadets and an opportunity I would've never seen as I was going through my cadet experience.
The event was great because it exposed cadets from different commissioning sources who are gonna be future officers together in the United States Army, but might not understand what other people's experience looks like. Brought 'em here to West Point, we put 'em through a two and a half day immersive experience in negotiation and were able to get some pretty amazing resources for it.
So, this last year, Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA came in, was our keynote speaker and he was phenomenal. So much about what he talked about, especially the negotiations they have with the Basketball Players Association and the union for the players, how they think about those negotiations, preparation forum, how they build consensus and build relationship.
You can see that the NBA's just, it has a better relationship with its union today than baseball and the NHL and particularly, baseball who almost lost its season this year because of their negotiation with the players. So those two things, going out to units and then running that workshop, I think it's just been phenomenal opportunities that I've been really proud and happy that we could keep going.
Aram Donigian : And we will just make sure, again, in terms of kind of a link for undergraduates that are interested and ROTC students that wanna reach out, how they can contact you. Building off that, you've also led a team that competed in the National Undergraduate Negotiation Competition.
MTC : Yeah, we have.
AD : Can you tell us a little bit about that? Cause I think it's an interesting thing that a lot of people don't know about.
MTC : So, Baylor has hosted this National Undergraduate Negotiation Competition. For the last two years, Covid like everything in life, interrupted it for one year, but in the last two years I've been able to take cadets to participate, last year in person.
And what's fantastic about it is I've taken cadets from my course and the cadets, by the time they get to that competition, they can understand preparation, they can think through my interest and the other party's interests.
How do we find joint options and how do we find legitimacy both in the case and through research? But what's really different and exciting about that is to see them work through negotiation strategy.
So, as we lay out the simulation, they're given a negotiation simulation in roles, they're gonna try to meet the interest of that person in the role, working through with them on, alright, if this interest is what is most important to the other party, what are the options we have to focus on, if that's number one.
But if it's this other thing over here, that's number one, how does that shape the negotiation? What do we wanna bring up? And then talking through what do we wanna present first? What way do we wanna present it? That negotiation strategy aspect has been so fun to get into that depth with cadets that when I have 66 cadets in class, I just can't get to that level in each negotiation with them.
But taking cadets there to compete with has been fantastic. And then obviously as Baylor brings all these different, there were 20 some teams last year, I had opportunities to meet with all those professors and how do they teach negotiation? What cases do they use, how do they structure their course? It's been both extremely rewarding to see cadets be successful there, but then just my own learning and understanding as well.
AD : Yeah, and the thing, the things you just described, the three of us could probably say we learned that much later in our professional careers.
MTC : Oh my gosh! yes.
AD : Right? I would challenge any listener and tell me that you were learning that thought-process when you were 20, 22 years old, right?
MTC : No……
AD : Senior corporate leaders still can't do that.
MTC : Yeah, 22 year old Travis, I promise you was not doing that.
AD : Neither was I. Hey, listen, you've now led the negotiation project for over three years, I believe that makes you the longest tenured director. I was for two and a half years, so I hand off the title to you, my friend. So, I think the cool thing about that being there for so long now is you've probably seen a lot of things change. You're seeing some relationships kind of develop and bear fruit.
What sort of changes are you seeing as you work both at West Point, also your outreach with military units, especially now that we've left Afghanistan, maybe the world shift in focus is a little different. How are you seeing changes in terms of application of negotiation skills or the context in which our future leaders are gonna need to negotiate?
MTC : Yea, so first I feel like I have to address the tenure point and let's hope that that's a good thing. I'm not quite sure right now. But to be honest, it's been an incredible honor. I tell people all the time that my life is fundamentally different and I think about problems differently because of this job. And as I go on, you're a decade removed from this role, Aram, not to age you in any way.
AD : I pull out the cane or something here.
MTC : But your involvement in this topic is so shaped by your experience here in this role, right? Continuing forward and going forward the rest of my life is gonna be shaped by having been here and been here this long in this role.
Your question is an interesting one, and it's one I've thought a lot about over the last three years. I grew up in an army fighting counterinsurgency fights, an army that was in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And as you're well aware, because you did it right, WP and P was founded to help officers and NCOs in Iraq and Afghanistan better negotiate with our civilian counterparts there, our foreign partner forces and our military partners there.
And as an army, we have fundamentally shifted as DOD, we fundamentally shifted back to a near peer competition. And we have to understand though that we still need these negotiation skills.
MTC : Right now, DOD is investing heavily in our relationships in Poland, in the Baltic states, because we're gonna need those partners to counter any further Russian aggression and we'll set aside the China situation and not address that now. But whether it's here, it's in the Pacific, we need those partners. And that means that there's gonna be an officer on the ground working with a NATO counterpart or another foreign counterpart that still needs to understand how to build consensus, how to influence op, which we talked about earlier, and achieve outcomes when they can't force or coerce our partners to do so.
And by definition, that is a negotiation. How am I going to get you to outcomes that are beneficial for both of us that meet your concerns, that meet your motivations, and still meet the mission that I've been tasked to do.
I would say that also in addition to it that the shift away from Iraq and Afghanistan has generated a significant demand signal from our advisor units, whether that's Civil affairs, special operations forces, security force assistance brigades, because their mission has gone back to a much more traditional role of building partner capabilities and are less focused on direct contact missions.
MTC : And so in my role as director of the West Point Negotiation Project, so much of my outreach to the United States Army and active duty units has been with those communities to help them be successful in those missions. And here in a month I'm headed to help train a civil affairs reserve unit that's getting ready to deploy to Europe. And all of us can think through what some of their mission requirements are gonna be over there. And in the spring, I'm headed to do some work with some special forces units that are gonna be doing very similar missions, but in a different part of the world and how to help them be successful when success is helping our partners be successful, not necessarily any actions that they're doing themselves.
AD : The concept of buy with and through, which has a nice translation even to the corporate world as we work with a supplier or someone else, a client, a customer. And we're equally concerned about their success because greater success for them is greater success for us.
MTC : Yep, yep. Absolutely agree.
NM : So, I know that you already highlighted the MBA commissioner coming to speak to the cadet workshop, but what are some other highlights of the program, either from training other military units as you kind of highlighted, or any writing, any other speakers that you've been able to bring into the program?
MTC : I think I'll tackle that question in two different ways. The first, very luckily, I think the greatest impact I've been able to have in this role, and this is not meant to talk about me being successful, it's talking about other people who have taken what we're learning here or teaching here and applying it to the United States Army and how it executes. The greatest impact has been helping the Civil Affairs branch identify challenges with their negotiation training and helping them restructure that training pipeline to mirror the principle negotiation concepts that we teach here at the United States Military Academy.
Admittedly, I was not the main effort on this. It was a former West Point negotiation project fellow that came up under Aram’s tutelage. But I was able to serve it really as a principal advisor and lend them credibility in, hey, you should do it this way. This is what we teach here at the academy. So, the Army should reflect, it was a source of objective criteria, it was a standard for them to bake their argument from.
And I helped redesign that training curriculum and that doctor, and for how they teach Civil affairs soldiers to negotiate their mission, especially in today's world of soft competition is so important. They're really managing that civil military relationships for the United States Army. And you can imagine in both Eastern Europe and in the caucasus region and in Southeast Asia where those responsibilities are so important as we compete with other near peer or peer competitors.
And to be able to help redesign that, to give some legitimacy to it, and then to go teach the first couple of courses down, was a really good opportunity that I, I'm very grateful we could do beyond that.
MTC : What's truly amazing about being at West Point is the people who are just willing to give their time to come in and talk with cadets. And as soon as an introduction is made to somebody that has some true experience in negotiation field, and I say, Would you be interested in talking with cadets? Everybody's immediately on board. It's pretty amazing, I don't have to sell anything, it's fantastic.
But we've brought in some pretty amazing keynote speakers or different speakers over the last few years. So we talked to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, but beyond that, Mr. Bill Dirksen, who's a retired vice president of labor relations for Ford, came in and talked Ford's labor negotiations with the United Auto Workers Association and their union.
We had Mark Shapiro literally this week, the CEO from the Toronto Blue Jays was here talking with cadets and management about negotiations, finance, leadership, hiring processes, just an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful man.
MTC : We've had a managing director from BlackRock come in and talk negotiations from an acquisition standpoint. Representatives from both the Minnesota Twins and Vikings are gonna be coming this fall to talk with cadets. And then our relationship with the FBI has been truly amazing, where each summer we have the opportunity to put cadets through the FBI's 40-hour Crisis Negotiation course. And that's led to just some fantastic relationships with the FBI, where I went and attended the 80-hour National Crisis Negotiation course.
I was the first DOD member in nine years to have that opportunity. And it's just some of the best training I've ever seen in my life, regardless of topic. And then we're taking cadets down there in 10 days actually to go interact with the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit and how do they interact and work with the FBI's Hostage Rescue team so that domestically they can solve really complex problems without having to do it lethally. And so just incredible opportunities and people being so willing to give their time here to cadets.
AD : That's a marvelous relationship, by the way, kind of a premier relationship with the FBI. I mean, that one goes back well over a decade now, and you've just matured it so nicely with what you're describing. And I gotta, congratulations on the work with the Civil Affairs and for folks who don't know, I mean, they really are the kind of arm of the army that should be our premier negotiators.
They're the ones that really should have, if there's someone who's gonna be honed in these skills, it’s civil affairs folks.
MTC : Yeah, I absolutely agree with you.
AD : And kind of building off that, one of the challenges has always been alignment and in any sort of bureaucratic, hierarchical sort of organization, getting everybody aligned on what's necessary and what's the language or what's the approach.
And that problem has gone back for years on negotiation. Where do you still see opportunities or challenges with regards to making negotiation a core organizational competency within the military? What work are you still tackling? Cause I know you're not resting yet, you're still leaning forward.
MTC : Yeah, unfortunately, a lot of the work that you were trying to influence a decade ago, it still exists now. Those problems still exist. And Mark Shapiro had a great quote this week while he was here visiting me, I expressed how thankful I was. I had done some work with a private organization and a senior leader was there the entire time, very senior leader in the organization.
And it surprised me cuz I have problems getting senior leaders in the Army into the room when I'm running these unit trainings. And Mark said that leaders assume they can negotiate well because they are leaders and negotiation is a process. And anything that is a process can be improved. So the units that I train leave so much more prepared to negotiate with their foreign counterparts. And it's not because of my skill or not because I'm some incredible teacher, but it's because negotiation really is a process and it is a skill that can be learned, developed, and improved.
And the vast majority of soldiers that I work with, they leave those three, four-day workshops so much more prepared to negotiate, not because of me, but because it's the first time that they've ever invested in that skill. And their eyes are now open to the fact that they can be more successful if they apply a process of preparation and conduct and review to it.
And I don't know, a lot of leaders think that they negotiate well because they're leaders and they have experience, but they don't understand these other skills or tactics. To be honest, as a 29-year old senior first lieutenant or junior captain, getting accepted to teach at West Point, I was like, Wait, I can do that and do that better?
I would love to go back and meet first Lieutenant Travis in Afghanistan negotiating land use contracts with local Afghans and go just like, Dude, you're doing this all wrong. All of it, all of it is wrong.
So, unfortunately, I think that it exists a little too, but that problem exists a little too broadly in the United States Army.
NM : So as you consider the application of negotiation skills beyond the military, how do you hope that the past and present cadets are gonna be able to apply these in the corporate non-profit or other sectors of their lives?
MTC : I think that the greatest thing that I hope that they take away is a deeper skill to understand and communicate with other people. So much of life is a negotiation, and I want my students to be open to the fact that they might be wrong to analyze a situation and realize that a rational person might reach a completely different conclusion than they did and be empathetic to that person's situation and conclusion and emotions around that.
And if they have that, then yeah, I think they can tackle whatever problem is facing those two people and work to solve it as two people solving a problem instead of two people competing to win. And if they can leave with that in either their personal or their professional lives, I'm gonna be pretty happy.
AD : What a great summary of somebody who loves to teach and influence this next generation. What's next for you? You still have another year of teaching there and impacting military negotiations. Is that right? And what's next for you, either in this field or something else? What can you tell us?
MTC : Yeah. Well, to be honest, I don't know, I have this semester and next semester. But the United States Military Academy model makes a lot of sense for many reasons. And it's set up to bring junior company-grade officers out of the force, give them education and put them in front of cadets. So, cadets are learning from officers who look like and resemble and have the experiences of the officers, the cadets are gonna go work for.
And that makes a lot of sense from a leadership standpoint, but unfortunately it means Travis has to go find another job in the United States Army. And I don't know what that is, I transitioned to a functional area. I'm now gonna be an Army strategist.
Hopefully, it's smart people trying to tackle tough problems and big problems for the United States Army. And I don't know where that assignment's gonna be at. The Cyphers family has a lot of preferences, but we'll see if those preferences come to fruition and where it's gonna be at. And the stress that comes with that unknown is obviously very welcome in the Cyphers household right now.
AD : I'm sure it is.
NM : Oh yeah. I don't miss those days.
AD : Yeah, sounds like there's some internal negotiations. We usually ask by the way, we usually say, how do these things show up at home, get a chance to practice some of these skills at home?
MTC : Oh yeah. So Aram, I share this story in my class of the moment where I realized that I thought of problems differently and my wife might kill me for this one, but maybe we just won’t…
AD : We won't tell her, we're gonna air the program.
MTC : Yea, I was actually teaching an MTT in Okinawa with my predecessor working with some special forces that are stationed there. And I got a phone call from my sister saying, Hey, we wanna come visit, like visit you at West Point and this is what we're thinking, etc.
And this is February, 2020. So obviously none of this came to fruition because of COVID, but this is our concerns and could you do this and could you do this and could you do this? And I said, Sure. And I called my wife and said, Hey, this is what they want. And she goes, Well, why do they want that? And we're not gonna do that. And it was that moment, Aram, I was like, Oh, I'm in a multi-party negotiation right now.
What's the concern that's driving the ask? Why are you asking it? How can I meet that in a way that if it's financial or it's time or whatever it is, how can I meet that in a way that gets all parties on board and comes with a solution that we're all working together? But it was a light bulb moment where I was just like, Oh yeah, this, no, this is a negotiation and I can take all of these things that I have learned and try to do this one better instead of just getting into an argument with my wife and then losing.
And so, at home, it's changed a lot. The opportunity to go through the FBI crisis negotiation course and how they teach active listening skills has just changed how I communicate with my family. And I have a 14-year old daughter who I love dearly, but she's a 14 year old girl and I'm dad, and sometimes she doesn't wanna share those things with dad.
And so how am I communicating with her in a way that hopefully encourages her to share a little bit more? These things have changed my behavior at home even
AD : So humbly said, Thanks Travis for sharing that and good on you for recognizing you were in a negotiation in that moment with your wife. That's half the battle is recognizing, yeah this is a negotiation. Let me think. Let me just slow the process down for a moment and think about what I should do. So….
NM : Travis, that's gonna have to be a book that you're gonna have to write because Gary Noesner, me, Aram, none of us have ever had success with negotiating with our spouses. I think you're the first guest that we've had on the podcast that's at least been successful in that realm. So, you gotta share your secrets in a book.
Is there anything that we did not ask you today that you think we should have and any other takeaways that we can give to the listeners?
MTC : No, gentlemen. I'm just incredibly grateful that you had even asked me to come and share some of this stuff for Aram to start off that a negotiation expert in the Army would, I don't know, maybe terrify some people that I've worked with over the years. But just honored that you'd have me in to talk and share a little bit of this with both of you and your listeners and to let you both know that your work here at West Point is hopefully still in good hands and progressing well.
AD : Thanks Travis. Well, it's really our pleasure. So many highlights. If I were try to recap folks, go back to what Travis was saying about the importance of preparation and shaping the outcome that you're gonna get to please listen to that. The idea that we negotiate every day as we try to build consensus, negotiate up, these skills are applicable. What a wonderful thing that Travis and his colleagues at West Point are equipping our next generation of military leaders with these skills, both at West Point, but also throughout the Army. And then I just think of the idea, the challenge there for leaders at the end, and I would say a leader of any organization, what a challenge because I'm a leader. Does that automatically make me a great negotiator? If it's a process, are there things I can still learn?
I was in training a couple weeks ago with a financial institution out of Boston. Most impressive thing about that day, it was a great day, great people, was that the CEO sat there and participated throughout the entire day of training. I'll tell you what, the way that engaged his people around him and his willingness to be humble and share and engage made all the difference.
I really encourage our listeners who are leaders of organizations, consider that. Consider how you can get better and help your organization get better too.
NM : Well, that is it for us on today's podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast. We graciously appreciate it. If there's anything that we can help you with, you can go over to and negotiate x.com or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will take care of it and we'll see you in the next episode.
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