Q&A with Jared Curhan

Jared Curhan, MIT associate professor of organizations studies, specializes in the psychology of negotiation and conflict resolution. A recipient of support from the National Science Foundation, he has pioneered a social psychological approach to the study of "subjective value" in negotiation. Curhan, whose book, Young Negotiators (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), is acclaimed in the fields of negotiation and education, was awarded MIT’s institute-wide teaching award as well as the MIT Sloan Jamieson Prize for excellence in teaching. He is the faculty director of our new two-day program, Negotiation for Executives. Below, he shares his thoughts on what defines a successful negotiation process.

How would you define a successful negotiator? What are the components of a successful negotiation?
The stereotype of a successful negotiator is someone who is aggressive and only interested in personal gain. It’s true that competitive, self-oriented individuals tend to perform well in simple, one-shot situations. Yet, most seasoned executives realize that ignoring the interests of others wreaks havoc on reputations, relationships, and trust─which are the building blocks of long-term business success.

Successful negotiations produce agreements that stand the test of time. To achieve that kind of lasting agreement, it’s critical that the parties understand each other’s interests and find a deal that maximizes those interests, while maintaining trusting relationships. By contrast, situations where one or more parties feel “taken,” tend to foreshadow the end of a working relationship.

What should people be willing to do to accomplish a successful outcome to negotiations?
Successful negotiation requires self-awareness, preparation, and practice. Self-awareness means understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as what kind of impressions you tend to make on other people. Depending on who you are, certain tactics or approaches may work better for you than others.

Another critical ingredient of a successful negotiation is preparation. There’s a common misperception that the outcomes of negotiations are determined primarily by tactics used at the bargaining table. Yet, most important negotiations are won or lost before the formal talk even begins. Negotiators who are well-prepared tend to prevail. The trouble is, most people don’t budget time to prepare for a negotiation, and even when time is allotted for preparation, few know how to prepare in an efficient and effective manner.

Finally, to learn how to implement negotiation strategies, there is no substitute for practice. Just like learning a new sport, such as soccer or tennis, lectures take you only so far. Without repeated practice and feedback, newly acquired skills won’t come naturally, especially in the heat of the moment.

Can you give us some highlights of your MIT program, Negotiation for Executives?
The highlights of the course tie into the aforementioned key components of successful negotiations: self awareness, preparation, and practice. For example, at the outset of the program, participants respond to a battery of scientifically validated survey measures about their personalities and approaches to negotiation. The resulting extensive personalized feedback leads to greater self awareness about one’s personality and attitudes toward negotiation, both of which influence the effectiveness of different negotiation strategies.

Midway through the course, participants are introduced to a comprehensive framework to facilitate efficient and effective negotiation preparation. This research-based framework helps negotiators analyze and better understand negotiation situations through perspective-taking, benchmarking, creative problem-solving, and brainstorming.

Finally, for many participants, the most memorable parts of the program are the negotiation simulations, which help them practice and hone their new negotiation skills. Examples of simulations used in previous programs include a compensation negotiation between a recruiter and a job candidate; a distribution contract between a beverage manufacturer and a soft drink distributor; and a multi-party environmental dispute. Participants rave about these simulations, claiming that they feel realistic, yet afford a safe, low-stakes environment in which to take risks or develop new skills. The simulations are followed up with lively, interactive discussions in which I tie the students’ reflections about their simulation experiences to related scientific theory and research.

How is your program at MIT Sloan different from other negotiation programs?
Since my basic training was in social psychology, my courses integrate key psychological theories and research that have important consequences for negotiation. Nearly every lesson or strategy presented stems from scientific research findings. Also, given my research on subjective value in negotiation, my students learn effective techniques not only for achieving superior objective outcomes, but also for fostering better psychological and social outcomes, both for themselves and their counterparts. Finally, my classes are supported by a unique customized, computer feedback system that enables students to receive plenty of individualized feedback about their personalities and negotiation outcomes.  

Can you share highlights of your pioneering research on the social and psychological components of negotiations?
The vast majority of research on negotiation focuses on how to attain better short-term economic outcomes, whereas surprisingly few studies focus on how to increase feelings of satisfaction in negotiation or how to build long-term working relationships. While some would claim that social and psychological components of negotiations are fleeting and irrelevant because what really matters is the price or economic terms of the agreement reached, my research demonstrates that social and psychological factors in negotiation merit keen attention─particularly when negotiators interact over time. Indeed, relational outcomes of negotiation can be said to “pay dividends,” building social capital and contributing to long-term economic performance.

In one longitudinal study, my colleagues and I measured objective and subjective outcomes of real compensation negotiations between recruiters and job candidates. One year later, we followed up with employees to measure their job outcomes. Results suggest that subjective outcomes of negotiation predicted job satisfaction, compensation satisfaction, and turnover intentions, whereas objective outcomes were not at all predictive.

Can you explain the Subjective Value Inventorya research instrument developed at MIT?
A primary reason why social and psychological components of negotiations have been relatively neglected in past scientific research is that they can be hard to measure. That’s why my colleagues and I developed the Subjective Value Inventory─a 16-item survey that can be used to better quantify subjective experience in negotiation. The phrase “subjective value” refers to the quality of individuals’ subjective experiences during and after a negotiation, which can be contrasted with more “objective” or observable factors such as number of dollars exchanged.

Through qualitative interviews about negotiation experiences with negotiation experts as well as everyday people, my collaborators and I identified four major areas of subjective experience that really matter to negotiators. Of primary importance is satisfaction with the process. Nobody likes to feel like the procedures employed during a negotiation were unfair. Another important aspect of subjective experience in negotiation is satisfaction with the self—for example, the feeling of being competent or of having acted with integrity. Feelings about the relationships formed during the negotiation affect one’s overall subjective value and have major implications for future interactions with the same counterpart(s). Finally, feelings about the negotiation outcome itself, such as the perception that one did better or worse than expected, are often the only metric a negotiator can use to determine the success of one’s negotiation performance, because in the real world there is seldom public information stating the range of all possible outcomes. The Subjective Value Inventory can be used as a post-negotiation questionnaire to better gauge these social and psychological phenomena, which have important implications for the overall success of a negotiation.

Why are you an advocate of a scientific approach to negotiation and conflict resolution?
It’s possible to learn how to negotiate through experience alone, but experience is a slow and inefficient teacher. That’s why I’m an advocate of conducting research on negotiation. By observing hundreds of negotiations over time, we can identify systematic patterns of behavior that tend to result in success or failure. Further, by experimenting with negotiation situations, both in the real world and in the laboratory (where we can manipulate one small feature at a time), scientists can confirm causal links between behaviors and outcomes. In my negotiation courses, I incorporate both traditional negotiation advice and cutting-edge, high-quality research findings that can boost the performance of negotiation practitioners.

You have won many teaching awards. What do you think makes you such a good teacher?
The simple answer is that I love to teach, and the interactive nature of my negotiation “lectures” leads to lively and memorable teaching moments. I should also mention that I personally tend to be a slow learner, so I have a great deal of empathy when students don’t understand concepts the first time around!

Why are you so passionate about teaching? What is it about the teaching process that makes it so rewarding?
The truth is I enjoy teaching because I enjoy learning. My courses are highly experiential and discussion-based. So, each time I teach a class, I learn a lot from my students. Each student brings a unique set of past experiences and beliefs about negotiation. They challenge ideas and provide new examples, which help keep the course fresh and interesting for me. Our discussions also often lead to new ideas for my research!

Jared Curhan teaching


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