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Welcome back to the NEGOTIATEx podcast ! Today we continue our journey with Mr. Hal Abramson , a full-time faculty member at Touro law center. If you haven’t checked our previous episode then we recommend you to listen before you continue with this.
As Hal relays his experiences on negotiation training and how it is a game of trial and error, he relates it to a variation of poker. Offers and counter-offers are like raising stakes before a compromise is reached. Hal understood the shortfalls of this method of training early on in his career and decided to rethink the role of positional negotiations in the courses he teaches.
Hal believes that for a person to be able to fully understand the core negotiation concepts and principles in his lessons, they must be able to relate them to their day-to-today lives. People negotiate every day, both professionally and personally. Some of his students think they are better at it than others. To effectively reach these people, he had to restructure his course so that he could start with positional negotiations. Once the benefits and shortcomings of that method are clarified, he moves on to other more effective strategies. Hal speaks about how the illustrations are shaped one after the other and how he has acquired so much inspiration while visiting the Air Force academy.
Hal laughs about how his journey has been as a negotiator, visiting foreign places and being in charge with people who were negotiating every deal. Hal speaks highly about different negotiation courses which talk about real-world problems and how metaphorically, different scenarios can be put together.
Taking the metaphor of a circle, when someone steps into the circle or what happens inside the circle are all part of the process of actually closing a deal or negotiating. After revamping his way of negotiating and spending weeks at the Air Force academy, Hal shares his experience as how someone has to think through being passing through the circles or leaning inside so that they can be better prepared before being part of the negotiating group.
Hal shares his inspiration which he draws directly from peacemaker Nelson Madenla who has been named to solve complex situations and issues happening all around the world. In his research article regarding him, he mentions Mandela’s greatest efforts and success while he negotiated with leaders and those who were directly responsible for the death of so many innocent people.
As some negotiations fail often, there are others which have great success rates due to a high integrity of negotiators and putting all the right tools to work. Hal speaks about how a room full of full-time mediators were called regarding the very recent situation of Russia and Ukraine, following the events of war. A lot of people were horrified and emotionally engaged as a lot of innocent people’s lives were on the line.
China is one of the leading nations which stands as a pathway into this. In the end, it’s all about how people are willing to listen to each other during negotiation. The tricky part of professional negotiators which they generally apply in their personal lives is the idea of manipulating into listening to different problems and issues at hand.
The best solution would be to fall in love with someone’s personal way of solving and thinking as Hal speaks on how seeing the bigger picture can be a help too. During interpersonal exchanges, it’s important to see the bigger picture because it helps in not getting caught into the moment which can sometimes be a deal breaker.
One piece of advice which Hal shares is that after reaching a gradual age limit, everyone has to listen and move aside any clashing thoughts to understand how a person is motivated and what is the reason for their motivation. This might be the greatest thing while negotiating to dive into solving personal problems.
Nolan Martin : Hey everyone. Thanks for joining us on the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are continuing our conversation with Hal Abramson, a full-time faculty member at Touro Law Center. If you haven't already checked out Part A of this episode, then please go ahead and do that first before diving in. Now let's just jump into it. Okay. So Hal, so at the beginning of our conversation here, you had talked about how everyone is an expert at negotiations, or at least they think that, so then how do you develop a course to teach negotiations to people who think they may already know everything?
Hal Abramson : Well, what I’m about describe to you did not occur overnight, okay [laughs]. Life is a set of trial and errors. You learn, you get feedback, you go, Ooh, that wasn't so smart or that was brilliant 10 years later. So when I first started teaching this stuff, I never taught positional negotiation. I just thought that's what you go to law school for is teach people to play this game of, I will make a first offer. You'll make a counter offer. I will play poker or some version in this negotiation game, and then we'll get to some compromise. I felt that that was not very productive and I, for years never taught it. And then I started realizing that was not a very good choice because I had to take people where they are. It goes to your question about people who already are experienced and I wasn't fully respecting them in my early years of teaching.
So I revamped my courses and started by teaching positional negotiation. And I had to study it, go into it deeply, figure out what it means to be a good positional negotiator, a person that's gonna function through offers and counter offers, and then teach it. So, I start all my courses with that now in negotiation. Because I wanna take them where they are so they don't reject things. Cause you come with something that's so new and radical. They go, this is not relevant. This has nothing to do with my world. So I wanna start with their world. So I start with positional negotiation. And the one we did at the air force academy was with used car sales and everyone has experience buying commerce. Okay. So we do that. And then we talk about what makes it work well, what does not?
And it's a very easy way to begin to introduce objective standards because you have the Kelly book value right away and thinking about buying, selling a car and she's start introducing some of the concepts. And then I say, okay, now we're gonna go into some newer stuff. And then I'm gonna show you at the end of the course, how, what you will be doing with your whole lifetime, how it fits into the bigger picture. So I'm not discarding it, I'm not rejecting it. I'm just gonna show you how it fits in. So now we're gonna start introducing interest based negotiation. Introduce problem solving, introducing some of the concepts that we're all familiar with as teachers in this field. And then at the end, I come back to position of negotiation and show the small role it plays in the overall negotiation. Usually at the very end.
Aram Donigian : Thank you for that. I think that's helpful from a design perspective and some of our listeners teach negotiation. And I know I'm always constantly wrestling with the best way to present these ideas in a holistic way over the time of a course. So you mentioned teaching at the Air Force Academy, you know, where were the differences and how did that affect the way you taught the students in terms of, you know, future officers in the Air Force versus future lawyers coming out of Touro?
HA : I think it's all the same with an exception I'm gonna mention in the moment; whenever I teach negotiations, I always begin with the same opening line or do a training program. What we're gonna cover here applies to your personal life, applies as a lawyer to deal with legal disputes or deals with world peace. It's all the same process, the same ideas in play here. Where I think it was important is to get people illustrations that they can relate to. Not relying on the vetted classic cases. So I went to the Air Force Academy, it was very interesting. So many things that happened was so fascinating. It was really a year I’ll treasurer for the rest of my life. I learned so much and it was just a great group I had an opportunity to work with…
NM : Imagine how good it would've been. If you were at the US military academy.
AD : 😊
HA : They're close by! There are a couple out there, I'm in New York so they hire me with the idea that they want to reassess their program. That's been around for about 10 years at that point, maybe longer. And no, one's gonna take a fresh look as an outsider and they have this idea, just bring an outsider once a while and see what we're doing and see if it makes any a difference. So I say, oh, this sounds like a great opportunity sign me up. So I pack up from New York, rent out my apartment, move all my belongings out to Colorado Springs. Know nobody. I mean, nobody. And as I'm fine of saying, cuz as you mentioned to my bio, I've done a fair amount of travel. Although not everywhere. As you pointed out still one continent to look forward to
HA : Uh, but I traveled a lot and people have said, where are you traveling this year? I said, I'm going to a foreign country this year, but happens to be in the US. Cause I had no military background and it was a foreign country for me and people welcomed me as a tourist and a visitor. But it was still new when I get there and I sit down with person who's in charge of negotiation program, Carmen Leon. And he says to me, “well here's our course, what do you have to say about it?” I said, “well, you know, they told me my job is I'm coming here with a clean slate, a canvas, a clean canvas. And I'm just gonna take a fresh look at this from the bottom up.” He says, “well not so quick”. He says between the time they offered me the position and the time I showed up, some guy by the name of Aram has been hanging out with them <laugh> oh man, he spent a whole year revamping their course and incorporating all the stuff that he was teaching at West Point.
HA : And he was very impressed with the changes and a little exhausted too. He said we're not really ready for more big changes. We made a lot of changes one year he said, but we're happy to have your input till we find everything that Aram has done. And I think to myself, what am I doing here? I just packed up my entire life here for 11 months and they may not need me. So I started looking at what Aram did and I learned a lot from what they did at West Point. In fact, I ended up incorporating a lot of what they did in my course when I went back to New York. But now to answer your question, cause I wanna give the question a context. So now I'm looking at a program that's already well developed and very sophisticated course.
And the first thing that struck me was how many exercises were still non-military-based exercises. Yeah. And one of the things I knew many years ago, early in my career was that you can have the greatest idea in the world, the best idea in the world, the right idea in the world, but people aren't gonna connect with it unless they have a context they can connect with. And so I was struck that you need to have more military exercises. I also made some other suggestions, Aram, I'm sorry, but I did make a couple other that were adopted, but the central structure was the same and we started adding more and more military based exercises,
AD : All improvements now, all improvements. I know that.
HA : And I thought that was important because it's very easy for people to reject hypotheticals that they can't relate to. And I remember earlier in my career, I'd have lawyers come to me and say, this is great stuff I'm learning, but not relevant to my professional life. And that's why I realized you have to get people exercises that are relevant to the professional life. So that was a big change. At least one of the contributions I tried to make when I was there.
AD : You made huge contributions. It was, it was a fun time to share with you.
NM : So how having both taught and practice negotiations and mediation, what are some of the things that you find get into people's way as they are trying to navigate either negotiation or mediation?
HA : Well, this will take me back to one of the lessons I got through the revamped course that Aram put together. And that is: what I liked what he did was that he put together a really integrated model, a full model. Getting to Yes is only a partial model. It's not a complete approach to negotiation. And now the course had this new model with this metaphor of a circle. And what do you do before you go inside the circle? What do you do inside the circle? What do you do outside the circle? And I found that image powerful and made the teaching of the material as a comprehensive theory more accessible. So the answer to your question about where I think people make the big mistake and I would use the, that model to illustrate it is people jump inside the circle and the circle in this model is when the negotiation takes place too soon,.
HA : People begin by negotiating. They don't do what they have to do before they negotiate, like building up relationships, getting information, doing the kind of preparation that's important before you go inside the circle. And so what happened for me after my experience at the Air Force Academy is I revamped my course by now spending the 14 week semester, the first four weeks, we do not go inside the circle. We just focus on all the preparation you need to do. In turn, I have a whole bunch of modules around preparation that I've developed with the idea of two things. Now I teach young people need to do outside the circle, but teaching, getting people used to the idea they had to slow down. And so I knew they were getting frustrated. When are we gonna negotiate? When are we gonna do an exercise where we had to solve something? And I said, first, you gotta prepare properly. I wanna slow down. So my short answer to your question is slow down. Don't go inside the circle too quickly. That's where people get in trouble,
AD : You know, from your UN background or other experiences, can you point to like a story where that happened? Well, you were able to say, Hey, we spend appropriate amount of time outside the circle, preparing, laying the foundations for what we were gonna do. Is that something that resonates with you as a story?
HA : Sure. I think one of the challenges when looking at negotiations is back to an earlier point I made. There's a lot we don't know. So I've been fortunate enough to have done what I now view as three very in-depth studies on negotiation, where I don't have all the answers of what happened, but I know more than the average person, average even expert in negotiation. The three is Camp David, which I did many years ago. Second one is Nelson Medela as a negotiator, which is the article that was already mentioned and third, is an article that'll be coming out very soon. And now with the publisher on the backstory of the repeal of “don't ask, don't tell”, so there, I got to go into a lot of detail. So I'm just gonna use an example right now on Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela played a big role in negotiating the dismantling of apartheid.
HA : We all know that he's a very well-known historic figure. In our world of peacemaking, he's one of two, three best known peacemakers in the world. He's a household name in the field. When you take a look at what he did and it was instinct, I doubt he read Getting to Yes or knew about this circle. He built relationships, he build relationships. We treat people with respect. One of the things that people asked him over and over again is how could he negotiate with people who were responsible for the oppression and death of so many people over not a day, not over a year over decades of apartheid. And his answer was we're all victims of the same system. And we're all individuals, we're all humans. And he wanted treat people as individuals, as humans. This was a person who instinctively knew the value of building relationships before he got to the stage of negotiation.
NM : Great. That's awesome. Hal in that same article you shared the good practices of advocating interests, understand the other side's interests, building relationships and forward thinking, listening and apologizing. Could you share with us what these are and why they're good practices?
HA : Sure. I'm gonna do this through another story. And this is a story that had to do with how that article came together. At least part of the story, how the article came together, it was a work in progress. At the time that this moment arrived. And I was presenting to a group called international academy mediators. And I was still at an early stage of the research and trying to figure out where I'm going with this project. And they gave me like 15 minutes to do a presentation on it. And I get, and I present some of the basic points about his story. I focus on 1985 and 1990, 1985 is when Nelson Mandela was offered- he was offered many times to be freed from prison if he would denounce violence- but 1985 was a particularly big moment when he was made that offer because his daughter read a speech that rejected that offer to the world, why he would not denounce violence, which is also another interesting issue from a negotiation point of view. Very interesting issue. And then the study takes a look at all the things that happened between then and 1990, 1990 is when he was released from prison. So I get to this, I'm presenting this work in progress to this group and I get to the end of the 15 minutes. And I said, so what are the lessons? The question you asked, what are the lessons? And I don't recall whether that's exactly the way I scripted at the time, but this is the way it came out. I said, what do we learn from Nelson Mandela? Nothing.
AD : Hmm.
HA : There was such a reaction in the room. I thought, wow, we’re really on to something here. This is all, nothing. Get nothing learned from him. And then I said, because what he did was what an AGA negotiator would do. He used all the practices, all the strategies, all the things we teach, encourage people to do. If there's any lesson that comes outta the Nelson Mandela study is to give people confidence that if these techniques can work effectively in the tractable protracted conflict of trying to dismantle apartheid, you should feel confident using these techniques in our day-to-day disputes. And that to me is the real lesson of all this. And so your lists are just techniques that are well studied and everyone knows are good practices.
NM : Yeah. Great way to frame it.
AD : You know Hal, you've had a, quite a career again for the 30 plus years in this field of conflict, uh, transformation. I think that's, I I'm borrowing that from Dr. Michelle Buck over at Kellogg. It's a way she uses it.
HA : Sure.
AD : Have you ever failed? Is that something I can ask you to maybe share a negotiation failure that was yours, was something you saw, something significant that impacted you and what were the lessons learned from that negotiation failure?
HA : Well, the question I've always asked whenever I make the mistake or explain what my field is, I always get the same question. Okay so what are you gonna do with the middle east?
HA : Talk about failed negotiations. And I said, you know what? We teach what we study, what we write about, what we practice, provide analytical tools that gives us insight into why some negotiations succeed and some do not, and it gives us a path going forward. So the one that comes up now of course, is what's going on in Russia, in Ukraine. And we had a group a couple weeks ago that got together on Zoom, a group of international mediators. And these, the group were people that are full-time mediators as their day job. I'm an academic practitioner. I'm not a full-time neutral. These people are full-time neutrals. And I was asked to present some ideas about what might be done in the Ukraine in Russia and how to move that toward resolution. And so I said, well, let me propose an exercise to everybody. This has to do with the analytical tools that we have. And I said, why don't we break out into breakout rooms, small groups, three or four people in a group. And why? Let us all prepare a victory speech for Putin.
AD : Hmm.
HA : And there was a lot of discomfort with that because people, this was two weeks into the conflict. People are horrified, emotionally engaged, emotionally distraught. And their reaction was okay, but that's gonna be difficult. And I said, the reason we do that, and now I'm gonna answer your question directly is because until we understand what that speech looks like, we have no pathway to go forward because that speech reveals what his interests are.
AD : Right.
HA : Until we understand his interests, issues don't get resolved. And interesting enough, people couldn't do it.
AD : Yeah.
HA : They couldn't write the speech.
AD : Right. I can, I can see that. The exercise, right. That academic exercise, so, so important to, to be able to step into his shoes.
HA : Yes. Yes. Because until, unless you don't, until you understand interest, there's no pathway to go forward.
AD : Do you have any, any, just pulling on that a little more, any thoughts about the direction this conflict is headed? And I mean day by day seems to change and continues to get more protracted. Any other thoughts there, Hal, in terms of where this may go? Well,
HA : Well the thoughts I had early on and I did presented it that day, was, I thought the answer was China.
AD : Okay.
HA : China is really the pathway out of this. And I was hoping that their interests was aligned enough with Russia and their role in world affairs to wanna serve that role. Because one of the things that was a little jarring to other people in this discussion, because the group I was with were all private mediators, not public mediators, public mediation is different than private mediation. In private mediation, we treasure neutrality. It's all about being neutral, public mediation, who cares. It's not about credibility. It's about clout. It's about influence. They're a very different notion. So I thought China could serve that role. I have no answer where this is gonna go right now. But we have analytical tools to understand exactly what's happening. Right now, the BATNA is better for Putin than a negotiated resolution. And the question is at what point would negotiate resolution be better?
AD : Let me ask another question. You shared kind of the, the struggle and failure or difficulties there, as you look back in your career, Hal is there a negotiation that you're particularly proud of something you were part of? What made that a success? What can our listeners learn maybe from, from your experiences as part of something that you deem, impactful?
HA : I had a number of interesting mediations over the years in terms of illustrations I'm hesitating because it's the issue of confidentiality. I think because it's recording, I can't, uh, go into any particulars because the ones that come to mind are ones probably should not be as a matter of public record. The simple answer is the tools that we're discussing work. But you gotta be persistent with them. You can't be shy about them. You gotta stick with them because it's very easy when the going gets rough to just go back to old habits.
NM : So Aram and I are always interested in how negotiation skills show up in your personal life. So away from the negotiation table or the mediation environment. So how, how are you able apply these skills in your own life?
HA : Well, there's a joke within a field dispute resolution that, that doesn't work in our personal lives.
HA : But I actually, uh, I think it does, uh, because of the same technique, it's all about listening. It's all about understanding interest. I think the tricky part for people who are professional negotiators, is that when you apply in your personal life, people think you're being manipulated, when you're not. We're just listening. We're trying to understand, we're asking the questions that we know you were supposed to ask professionally. We ask privately, personally, but because they know so much about you, they question, well, what are you really trying to manipulate us to do? No, I'm just trying to understand what is important to you. I'm just trying to understand your interests. I don't use those words, of course, that just turn people off. You gotta be careful not to use the vocabulary in these informal conversations. But that's what's going on my head. I gotta figure out what's important. And then knowing that there's more than one way to meet interest, which is important not only for the other side, but for you, for me, cuz I may, you know I love talking about negotiation. I said the biggest problem you have when generating options and thinking you got a good answer is you fall in love with your own solution.
AD : Right?
HA : And once you fall in love with your own solution, it's hard to be flexible and be open to other ideas and other ways to get there.
NM : I haven’t figured it out my personal life. So I'm still working on as my wife would probably say so.
HA : Yeah. Right. Well there, we know who are, we know who are our greatest critics.
NM : Absolutely.
AD : But, but, but Nolan is Helen, I will say from being at the Air Force Academy, as long as you're on that upward trajectory. Okay. That's the important thing. So
HA : Well, I think it's important to see the big picture. Yeah. And seeing the big picture, you know, it's very easy to get caught up in the tense moments and it is very easy, particularly because as I've found of saying in these more interpersonal exchanges, is that when I say one sentence, they're not hearing one sentence. They're hearing that one sentence in the context of a series of one sentences over years of time. Or little tone change, which I may not detect. They may see and say, there you go again. It gets more complicated cause there's more data that is out there than in our standard negotiation where you're not with someone on a regular basis.
AD : Yeah. They're very insightful. Hey Hal as we get ready to wrap up any kind of final words of wisdom and advice, key considerations for our listeners on how they can improve their negotiation skills and abilities?
HA : One piece of advice. And one only. And I used to think it was easy advice to give and easy advice to implement. But after the 30 plus years, I no longer think that, but it's really basic: understanding the other side's interest. There is no more important, powerful concept than that because once you move away from positions to interest and understand what's really motivating people and it opens the door to so many possibilities, but we get stuck in this positional negotiation. As a matter of our upbringing, our default process people, the way I like to describe it is that people are always throwing solutions at each other, not interests. Someone doesn't come into a room and say, I want five, here's my interest. I wanna be sure there's a better world. They come in and say, I need $10,000, which I would use to have a better world.
HA : So what sometimes people say to me in negotiation is what do you do when someone comes in and say, here's what I want, which is really their solution. And I say, and here's the other lesson, for me anyhow. That's the beginning of a conversation, not the end. Sometimes people think it's the end. When someone shares with me what they want, their position or tells 'em what they're angry about or tell me they can't talk to someone anymore because I'm fed up with this. Whatever it is, that's not the end. That's what I need to begin the conversation. So interests and viewing conversations as openings, not closings.
AD : Yeah.
NM : Hey Hal, thank you so much for sharing those wonderful insights. And thank you so much for joining the podcast. This is a podcast that is all about elevating your influence through purposeful negotiation. So with that, turn it over to Aram for some final thoughts.
AD : Thanks, Nolan. And let me just thank you Hal for taking the time outta your busy day and schedule to be with us. It is great to see you again, thanks for the impact that you've had on me, on those that are listening to this, certainly on the officers you impacted the Air Force Academy and all the students you've had through the year. So thanks for that Hal, very appreciative of your work. Folks, there's just so much that I think you can take in terms of takeaways. I really encourage you to read, Hal’s article on Nelson Mandela. And I think what Hal said there, if these skills can work and these approaches can work in that sort of environment and context, they can work with the challenges you're facing today, personally and professionally. So encourage you to look at that, encourage you to read some of the other articles that we'll certainly link to. And again, Hal thanks for being with us.
HA : Well, thank you for this opportunity. This is very enjoyable and I really appreciate the opportunity to answer these questions because they caused me some self-reflection. Thank you.
NM : Absolutely. So that's it for us on today's podcast. Thank you so much for joining. If you could please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast, we greatly appreciate it. And we'll see you in the next episode.
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