Getting to Yes

By Ian Mathias

Michael Siegel

The tension is palpable between the two disputing parties who are seated opposite each other at a long conference table. On one side are two representatives of a local teachers union, whose bitterly overworked constituents are facing yet another round of layoffs and benefits cuts. They’re fed up and thinking about going on strike. On the other side of the table are representatives of the cash‑strapped school board, under constant pressure from the state to cut spending and increase test scores, all in the same year. They have to strike a deal before the school year starts … but how?

This is a scenario any school system would dread. For a handful of Johns Hopkins graduate students, it’s a typical Tuesday night.

“The leaders of the future need to know more about mediation and negotiation and less about command and control,” says Michael Siegel, who teaches Negotiation as a Leadership Skill. The course is offered in several degree programs within the Krieger School’s part‑time graduate division, known as Advanced Academic Programs.

“Negotiation is a skill that not a lot of people are taught, even though it’s very important in many different careers and pursuits,” says Siegel. That likely explains the diverse student makeup of each class, which often includes aspiring leaders in government, the military, and the private sector—or occasionally graduate students who would simply prefer to get a raise next time they ask for one.

Practice, Siegel says, is the critical component to his course. After learning the basics, students are divided into groups and given their first assignment, usually a smaller, more “private” negotiation, like settling an auto‑repair dispute. One team will represent the auto shop, the other the customer, and all are asked to come to a settlement by a certain deadline. As the semester progresses and the negotiators‑in‑training hone their skills, the mediations become more complicated and important. Students in the course this past summer concluded with two‑on‑two team “public” negotiations, where the groups had to settle that heated dispute between a fictional teachers union and school board.

“This is one of the classes you have to take before you graduate,” says T.J. Morales, a student in the MA in Government program, who says both the course and Siegel have achieved small celebrity within the student body. “It taught me a lot of rare practical skills that I can use almost every day at work, school, or even with friends and family, and Professor Siegel is so great at what he does.”

What Siegel “does” when he isn’t teaching this course—which is offered at night to cater to working professionals—is teach essentially the same skills to federal employees. As a senior training specialist at the Federal Judicial Center, he instructs mostly federal judges, attorneys, and court executives how to manage effectively, including negotiation and conflict management skills.

So what’s the key to becoming a top‑flight negotiator? “The central idea is focusing on interests, not positions,” says Siegel.

“I like to use the anecdote of two kids fighting over an orange. Their positions are the same—they both want the orange. But maybe they have different interests; like one wants the fruit because he’s hungry and the other wants the rind to help his parents make a pie. I try to teach students not to focus on a position (the orange) but the interest that lies behind it (the pie). If they can do that, move slowly, and plan thoughtfully, they can get much more creative in solving conflicts.” When done right, Siegel says, both parties often leave feeling as though they’ve won.

“The more you know about everyone’s interests,” Morales adds, “the easier it is to arrive at a place where what I want is the same as what you want. Professor Siegel’s experience in law helped show me that you can never really be too prepared.”

Every once in a while, thanks to Advanced Academic Programs’ footing in Washington, D.C., students gain some remarkable perspectives from guest negotiators. For example, Kenneth Feinberg has visited the class nearly every semester this course has been offered. As the man who oversees the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund (among other equally intimidating projects), he knows a thing or two about difficult negotiations. Students have also enjoyed guest lectures from Dennis Ross, a State Department special advisor who has spent most of his career brokering peace agreements in the Middle East.

“I really appreciated that diplomatic perspective,” says Hannah Kaye, who completed the course last summer while working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Policy and Advocacy Team. “I’m very interested in the growing overlap between global development and U.S. security interests, and found this course to be even more valuable than I expected … there is never a bad time to improve your listening skills. Anyone can transfer the lessons of this course to any career.”

Kaye says she certainly took lessons from this course straight to work … but also to a few other places. “My fiancé likes to joke with me and say, ‘Don’t use your negotiation skills on me!’ But to be honest, if I really use what I learned in this course, we both usually end up happier.”