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Originally from Blue Earth, Minnesota, Travis was enlisted in the Army as a combat engineer and deployed to Afghanistan to clear minefields. He then earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin in Lacrosse in Social Studies Education and was eventually commissioned as a field artillery lieutenant in the Army. Travis has been deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and to South Korea in support of the United States Forces Korea Mission.
In his role as the director of the West Point Negotiation Project, he aims to enhance the ability of military leaders to negotiate in complex and challenging situations during war and peace. Today, the project has extended its reach beyond just the cadets at West Point and Travis is considered to be the premier negotiations expert for the Army.
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.
According to Travis, one needs to focus on preparation to become an effective negotiator. He cites Ukraine’s example of using long-range weapon systems to shape the battlefield and influence Russian action without putting soldiers in direct combat.
He also highlights how field artillery is used to set the conditions on the battlefield in the operating environment to shape the fights even before they start. The point Travis tries to make is that good preparation is important before carrying out any crucial task, and it is no different when it comes to negotiation.
Preparation will do as much to determine the negotiation outcome as any tactics at the table. Note that it’s not just about preparing well for your engagement or talks with the counterparty but also your conversation with other people in the strategic environment. That way, you could set the conditions at the table before you even get there.
Travis mentions that good leadership is about understanding the people we work with and cites Chris Argyris’ book The Ladder Of Inference. The book discusses how other people reach different conclusions than we do, which can be fundamental in understanding the thought process of people. Thus, it, in turn, can help us understand why people can look at the same information and reach different conclusions.
He also highlights that leadership is about building consensus; it’s about getting people on board and building a team to achieve a common goal. Or, it could also be about working to understand the concerns of the people you work for, their interests and motivations, and figuring out how you build towards the same goal.
Regardless of the approach, an effective leader should be able to bring their team members on board strategically and work together towards a common goal. Remember, when you bring people to work together towards a goal in a way that, even if it’s different from what they wanted, it will ultimately lead to better results.
Identifying a problem may not be enough. To be an effective subordinate, you must also provide solutions. Present solutions that meet your needs as well as those of your boss. Being creative and approaching problems with a problem-solving attitude can help you become an influential and persuasive subordinate.
Travis, Aram, and Nolan discuss a lot more on this episode of the NEGOTIATEx Podcast. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts on this very informational podcast episode.
Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. My name's Nolan Martin and with me is Aram Donigian and our guest Major Travis Cyphers. Aram, do you wanna introduce Travis today?
Aram Donigian : I sure do. This program's gonna air right around Veteran’s Day, so it seemed appropriate to kind of go back to what Nolan and I would consider our home roots at West Point and the military. And it is a pleasure today to have the current director of the West Point Negotiation Project Major Travis Cyphers with us.
So lemme tell you a little bit about Travis, someone that I've known now for about seven years, which is amazing. Travis is originally from Blue Earth, Minnesota. He enlisted in the Army as a combat engineer, deployed to Afghanistan clearing minefields. That was his first preparation for becoming a negotiator.
He then earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse in Social Studies Education and was eventually commissioned as a field artillery lieutenant in the Army. He's deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, has also deployed to South Korea in support of the United States Forces Korea Mission.
AD : Travis is a graduate of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College that is a connection that he and I hold dear with each other. After completing his MBA at Tuck, he went on to West Point to become an assistant professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department.
He serves as the officer in charge or the director of the West Point Negotiation Project. And the purpose of that project is to enhance the ability of military leaders to negotiate in complex and challenging situations during both war and peace. The West Point Negotiation Project has extended its reach far beyond just the cadets at West Point and is now considered the premier negotiations expert for the Army. Travis, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
MAJ Travis Cyphers : Yeah, Aram, I appreciate that introduction. That last part there scares me a little bit, so I appreciate your comment, but I don't know how much I agree.
AD : Well, our listeners are gonna know how true that is in just a moment as we get into some of these questions. So thanks for taking the time to be with us. We know you're busy, you're in the midst of classes here, so……
MTC : Yeah, Semester's often running awfully fast already.
NM : Well, we know that whenever we bring an active Army officer into the podcast, we know there's always a disclaimer that the views here are that of your own Travis Cyphers and not of the Army. Is that still accurate? Anything changed since I got out in June?
MTC : No, no. It is still very much accurate. Anything discussed today are my personal views and not representative of the US Army or the United States Military Academy, which is just something we have to share and say.
AD : Which means now we're free to ask you anything because, it’s just Travis asking us we're, we're gonna be, we're not putting you in an ambush. Okay. No L-shaped ambush here from a couple friends and colleagues. So….
MTC : Yeah, that's good.
NM : Could you share with us a little bit about your background, your military career, and what led you into the interest of pursuing teaching negotiations at West Point or anything that you've done since then?
MTC : Very happy to do so. And Aram, Nolan, thank you so much for having me. It's truly an honor to be here and talk with you and talk with your listeners. I'm a 22-year veteran in the United States Army with two deployments in Afghanistan. For the last 13 years I've been a field artillery officer. I've been incredibly lucky that for the last three years of my career I've had the opportunity to teach leadership and negotiation courses here at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
As for my interest in negotiation, Aram was actually instrumental in me finding this path and opportunity in life. When I was accepted to teach at West Point, I was in South Korea at the time with my battery and my battalion commander. I told him I was accepted to go teach at West Point and I told him I was gonna be teaching in this department called Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, which I didn't know really anything about and that I was gonna teach in the management program.
MTC : And he said, Oh, for my time at West Point, I know a guy, I would love to introduce you to him. And it was Aram. And during our first conversation, our first conversation was really about graduate schools and both ended up being graduates from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He recommended this book called Getting to Yes and said, Hey, I think you should read this. Would you ever consider teaching negotiations? And to be honest, I didn't even know that there was something that you could or would teach.
And so I read the book and he recommended a couple others that I took the time to read. And it just resonated with so many of my own failures and lessons that I had learned that I became really interested in the topic. And those learnings and the lessons that I've taken away from teaching this course and this subject have affected me in a way that I'm just feel incredibly lucky, find such a topic and a field that I've now become extremely passionate about.
NM : No, that's great. And I think that right there is the reason that we started NEGOTIATEX. Cuz I had that same experience with Aram as my professor at West Point. So
MTC : Yeah, there's a theme here.
NM : Yeah. Yeah. I tell Aram to this day that I have a master's degree and all the way through all my education that I've had, the only course that still resonates with me on a daily basis, I mean, aside from this podcast and everything is negotiations and what I learned in that course and how it just applies to everything.
So echoing exactly what you said there, and that's kind of the reason that we started this, it has just been so powerful.
AD : Well, you're both kind and obviously I would look at Jeff Weiss as a major influencer and if you said that if Jeff was here, he would talk about the impact of Roger Fisher and others. And it's just a wonderful legacy that we all get to be part of and get to influence. And it's part of what Travis you get to do now in terms of influencing new minds, the next generation of armies, the Army's leaders as well as current leaders. What a great opportunity you have.
MTC : Yeah, it's one that's been phenomenal and I know we're gonna go into it, but not being a graduate of the United States Military Academy, being here and teaching this course, the impact has been for the rest of my life, be eternally grateful for this opportunity and the opportunities to influence so many people through this role.
AD : Travis, many of our listeners probably don't know what a field artillery officer does in the Army, and you were a combat engineer before that. I made the joke. Both of those, we could probably say have connections to be an effective negotiator, But what can you tell us a little bit about maybe your roles and responsibilities in both those positions? And now, I mean, as you look back, do you see connections that maybe you didn't make before?
MTC : Yeah, I thought about this a little bit going into the podcast of what that link is. So, field artillery officers in the United States Army work with our maneuver commanders to make every engagement as uneven as possible, so our combat soldiers can fight and win as easily as possible and as safely as possible.
And field artillery officers oversee the implementation of long range weapon systems and then the application and implementation of rotary wing aircraft, fixed wing aircraft to engage the enemy. So direct engagement becomes easier or not required at all.
You can see the significant effects of some of these weapons systems right now in Ukraine as you look specifically with the himars weapon systems, our United States long range rocket and missile systems and how that's affecting the battlefield.
It's really made those systems very prominent back amongst our own force of like, No, this is the capability of what it can do both in this battle space and the operating environment.
MTC : As for the link as an effective negotiator, I think there's a strong link in focus on preparation. So in many ways, the field artillery is used to set the conditions on the battlefield in the operating environment to shape the fight before it even starts.
And going back to Ukraine, you can see that today and over the last five months, four months as Ukraine's effectively used our long range weapon systems to shape the battlefield and influence Russian action without putting soldiers necessarily in direct combat. And in negotiation, good preparation is similar. Preparation will do as much to determine the outcome of a negotiation as any tactics at the table.
And how do I think as a negotiator about not just the preparation I'm doing with me, preparing for my engagement or my talks with that other party, but my conversation and engagements with other people in the strategic environment that I might be able to set conditions at the table before we even get to the table. Some of that negotiation strategy, 3D negotiations. I think there's a lot of similarities there that maybe I didn't think about as much before coming into this discussion.
AD : That's one of the things we talk about so much, isn't it Nolan? The value of preparation. And Travis, you really, I mean, you summarized it just so nicely to be able, it's the prep before the engagement. You're shaping things who you're pulling in. It has to be done really intentionally.
AD : So, as you've taught negotiations, kind of what are some of the things that you're learning that are new and interesting to you? Are there any new topics or aspects of negotiations that you're exploring? Anything like that going on?
MTC : Before I got here and before I started teaching, all of it was new to me. So in that process there's so much that is. As far as new and interesting, we'll talk about it a little bit later, I think as we talk. But there's so much work that I spend time talking with cadets and soldiers as we understand good leadership in the army, so much of it is understanding the other people that we work with and Chris Argyris’ The Ladder of Inference work about understanding how other people reach different conclusions than we do has been really fundamental in getting both my cadets to understand why other people can look at the same information and reach different conclusions.
And it's really been instrumental in working with the advisor communities that I work with and just how do we look at the same information?
But because of the experiences we've had, the training we've had, what we feel is relevant will lead us to really different conclusions. While that's not a new concept, it was new to me and really fundamental in how I've changed how I think about things.
As far as topics or aspects of negotiation that I've found interesting or exploring a little bit. I had the opportunity to take some cadets to IESE Business School in Barcelona this summer, and it was a really tough duty. Somebody had to take the cadets to Barcelona,
AD : What a sacrifice!
MTC : I had to sacrifice….
AD : You know, every red leg listening to this podcast right now has a little envy of you.
MTC : Yeah, they went to NTC and I went to Barcelona. They were in the deserts in California. So there's a gentleman there named Kandarp Mehta, who wrote a new book that came out last year, Negotiate Good, Negotiate Well. And he has just some fantastic behavioral aspects of negotiations in that book that got me thinking a little bit differently about how I teach the course.
And the course here at West Point is so much around Principal Negotiations. How do we tackle problems side by side versus me, Against me versus you? But understanding the behavioral stuff is still really important I think. And so hadn't spent a lot of time in that side of negotiations and digging into a little bit of what he had in that book has just been new and interesting in the last year.
AD : Travis, I wanted to hit on the first thing. You talked about good leadership. You've taught leadership at West Point, you taught in the core leadership course that all cadets have to take, I assume MG-3 90, the negotiation course is still called Negotiation For Leaders?
MTC : It is.
AD : So from your own thinking, what's the connection between leadership and negotiation? Because I think many people would say, I negotiate, it’s something I do occasionally. You seem to be framing it a little differently.
MTC : So what was amazing about teaching the leadership course here at West Point is all of the lessons both through failure and success that I had learned through my army career of like, Oh, these are my general rules for leadership. It turns out there's a lot of research into leadership and coming here to teach the class, it was an opportunity to take those things that were just kind of Travis’ rules or Travis’ way of leading and learn the actual research of like, nah, that's why that one didn't work. And it was really good.
What's fantastic about the negotiation course and teaching it from negotiation for leaders is there's this outside perspective that leadership in the Army is just top down, rank-driven, that I tell you what you to do and you're going to do it. And leadership is leadership regardless of its situation. And it's so much about building consensus.
How do I get people on board? How do I build a team to achieve a common goal? And you can take the route in leadership of this is what we're gonna do and this is why we're gonna do it. Or you can work to understand the concerns of the people that work for you. What are their interests, what are their motivations? And figure out how do you build towards that same goal, maybe in a way that you can get them on board and when you don't want to or are unwilling to force or coerce somebody else to take the course of action that you want, it kind of becomes a negotiation, understanding their fundamental interest, their concerns, their motivations to lay out a path forward for them.
And even if I don't ultimately go as a leader with that course of action, that they've kind of pushed for. The opportunity to bring them on board and work towards that goal together in a way that even if it's not the one they wanted, it will ultimately lead to better results.
AD : I think that's gonna be an interesting twist for listeners who may not be familiar with the military and assume, Hey, if you've got all the authority and position of a power, why are you concerned about these things? And I think you've made a good case. Why effectively, leaders, regardless of military business, a nonprofit, why they should be concerned about the concerns of others push you a little further. Does that apply leading up your chain of command too? Can you apply some of that thinking as you try to lead upward as well?
MTC : Yeah, and I actually think that's probably even a little more applicable in this situation. When it comes to my bosses, I can't rely on rank. I can't go and say, Major Travis Cyphers thinks that it should be done this way.
So, it's understanding what are my boss's concerns, what are his or her interests? What are they trying to achieve? And can I present solutions that meet my interests as well and maybe meet those concerns in a different way, but lead to better outcomes or are less painful for me to accomplish those tasks.
I think leading upwards has so much to so much relationship to negotiation because it's really about understanding the person above you, what are their concerns, what are their motivations, and then figuring out how you could present solutions in a different way that will still meet those but might not have been in the way that leadership has originally presented them.
AD : And that gets to, you mentioned Ken Dart, you met him this summer, is that you were able to have the opportunity to meet him at IESE?
MTC : Yeah, we sat down and we had a couple of different meetings actually, where we talked through his book, we talked through how he teaches negotiation there. It's structured a little bit differently than we teach here at West Point, but obviously so many of the concepts are the same. He incorporates behavioral stuff, a little bit more anchoring, what is it like to have some tactics at the table that might claim value a little bit better, but still talking about working together, tackling problems jointly, etc.
AD : One of his articles that I just recently kind of discovered and really enjoyed was called Five Essential Strategies for Creative Negotiations. And as you're talking about bringing solutions, anyone can identify a problem, but if you're gonna be effective subordinate or you're gonna really help your manager, leader the ability to be creative and come and say this idea of options present 3, 4, 5 different ways we can go about this boss, commander, whatever it might be, it really helps. It makes you a more influential and persuasive person.
MTC : Yeah, I really think so. And it's just, it's better for the organization if both the leader and the led think that way.
AD : You're working with some amazing cadets there through your course and the project. What can you highlight? I think that our listeners might be really impressed to hear about some of the things cadets are doing, the contributions they're making, or maybe some of the growth you're seeing in them as negotiators, these young 18, 19, early twenties, something year olds.
MTC : So the thing that I'd like to highlight the most is Covid Pandemic really changed things here at the academy. It did everywhere for a year and a half. And in May of 2020, or March of 2020, the cadets went on spring break and never came back. And then very quickly we had to figure out how to teach in a virtual environment. That led forward a year where still dealing with Covid, actively concerned about many of those things, rightfully so.
We weren't allowed to take cadets on these Academic individual advanced development programs where coming from USMA cadets don't get to really do internships like normal universities would. But they're generally given three to four week opportunities, especially from the management program where I teach to go work with businesses and see what does business look like when you're not wearing the uniform to apply many of those skills that they have learned, whether it be finance or accounting or strategy or marketing or human resource management.
MTC : The summer of 2021 cadets could only go do one of these programs if it was at a military base. And so we were kind of scrounging for how we create opportunities or experiences for cadets to get credit for this, but still take course material and apply it in a different situation other than the academic environment.
And so I crafted and created an IAD that's what we call them, to take two cadets with me for three weeks to train different army units and Summer 21. And then this summer 22, I took two cadets, gave 'em quite a bit of reading to do preparation work. Then they helped me run the West Point Negotiation project, Army Leaders Workshop here at the Academy four day event where we bring leaders from all across the army here. They helped with logistics and some of the basic debrief stuff, but over the next three, or over the course of the three weeks, they gradually took over more and more responsibilities where we do the workshop here.
The next week we went to another unit and they taught about 35% of the course material. And then we went to another unit. And the two cadets between 'em each taught about a third of the course. So, it was pretty amazing to see their understanding of negotiations grow to the point where they could feel confident enough, teaching commissioned officers, seasoned, non-commissioned officers.
And by that third week, some of the best moments where they were able to feel tough questions that we hadn't prepped, but they were able to take these concepts that we had been discussing for two and a half week and thoroughly understand the material well enough in these concepts well enough that they could answer those concerns from seasoned officers and sergeants in the US Army and answer 'em succinctly.
So, I think that's the coolest thing that I've been able to do as far as taking cadets and helping them grow in this area of negotiations. We still have negotiation fellows who have opportunities to lead some events here on campus at the academy. They get to engage with some unique speakers, etc. But that event over the last two summers, it's been just amazing to see that growth within a couple of young cadets.
AD : That's fantastic. And such maturity on their part. You mentioned, by the way, you mentioned the workshop that you're now running each year. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And for any of our listeners who are on active duty, if that's something they wanted to do, how do they apply to attend that program?
MTC : Well, it's not a super complicated process. Every May the week after graduation, it's been going on now about eight years, I do believe. And I do believe it wasn't running when you were here, correct?
AD : It was not. No, we did not.
MTC : So the week after graduation, so generally the last week of May, we take the new tactical officers that are coming to the academy. It's really their first academic experience, they attend this workshop. And then the cost of attending is just travel and lodging at the unit expense, but there's no cost for the workshop, no cost for attending, etc.
And we bring 50 to 60 army leaders from the Civil Affairs community, Security Force assistance, brigades, special forces, and regular army units that are gonna have generally some type of advisory mission, bring them to West Point and put them through three or four days, depending on the model we're gonna run that year on principal negotiations.
And it truly is a deep dive over those three or four days where we're running nine to five with evening prep and evening readings to give them an immersive experience in principle negotiation. And for anybody that's active duty, that's listening, there's either through you or through the West Point Negotiation project website, there's a link that they can find my email address and express their interest in attending.
AD : Yeah, we'll make sure we get both linked from our site.
NM : Hey everyone, thanks for joining us on today's episode. We've got to jump in and stop it right here. We're gonna continue our conversation with Travis next week as you listen to part B of this episode. If you haven't already, please be sure to review, rate and subscribe to the NegotiateX podcasts. Thanks and we'll be seeing you in that episode.
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