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West Point group teaches art of negotiation

Jan. 28, 2012 - 09:19AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2012 - 09:19AM  |  
Class of 2011 Cadet Drew Ross continues to speak privately with the NATO officer while his teammates conduct multilateral negotiations with the other parties while participating in the West Point Negotiation Project. Cadets had to make a series of process choices, or deliberate decisions, as taught in the Negotiations for Leaders course to set an agenda and reach agreements in three scenarios during the final graded exercise.
Class of 2011 Cadet Drew Ross continues to speak privately with the NATO officer while his teammates conduct multilateral negotiations with the other parties while participating in the West Point Negotiation Project. Cadets had to make a series of process choices, or deliberate decisions, as taught in the Negotiations for Leaders course to set an agenda and reach agreements in three scenarios during the final graded exercise. (Mike Strasser / Army)
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The final exam for cadets in the West Point Negotiation Project class was a hands-on application of negotiation tactics against real world scenarios. (Mike Strasser / Army)

The success of a mission, deployment or career often depends on relations with local nationals, coalition partners and subordinates. If they become disengaged, operations can go crashing down.

Perhaps no Army organization values the power of persuasion like the West Point Negotiation Project, a group that is changing the way cadets and soldiers communicate — often by teaching techniques that fly in the face of traditional Army bravado.

"Oftentimes [soldiers] approach things from typical, traditional, positional bargaining, where we argue over our positions, stick out our chests a little bit [and] get frustrated with the other person if they don't want to give in," said Maj. Zach Mundell, co-director of the project.

"Much better" results, he said, come from an approach foreign to many soldiers: Taking a step back to understand someone else's side and agreeing on a course of action that fits both parties' constraints.

"To negotiate better, you really have to change your behavior … which requires being able to change your worldview or your assumptions," he said.

The project's teachings fall in step with the Army's push toward molding more agile and critically thinking leaders, a mindset that's "much more than a linear-thought process," Mundell said.

By visiting posts as a "mobile training team" and instructing active-duty soldiers, Navy SEALs and Green Berets, and teaching classes to future second lieutenants at West Point, Mundell and the project have been passing on the "art and science" of getting others to see things their way.

The organization was established in 2009 after graduates of West Point's academic course called Negotiation for Leaders said the skills they learned were "critical in their deployment experiences," according to http://www.dean.usma.edu/departments/bsl/programs/wpnp/index.htm">the project's website. The course was launched in 2006.

The West Point team emphasizes challenging assumptions, defining good outcomes, conducting principled negotiations, dealing with difficult behaviors and multiparty negotiation. The hope is to better prepare leaders for the complex, cross-cultural negotiations that await them, according to an Army release.

The project's staff consists of two directors — Mundell and co-director Jeff Weiss, a West Point and Dartmouth professor who helped create the negotiations course — and about 30 cadets, who help supervise academy negotiations programs, conduct related research and organize teams to train other soldiers using mobile training teams.

The group is pushing to extend its influence further into the ranks — aimed at combat leaders — by distributing negotiations information down from commands and up from smaller units.

In March, West Point is scheduled to host a conference called "Negotiation: A Tactical Asset for Leaders."

Mundell hopes to incorporate more negotiations teaching at Army schools, such as Captains Career Courses.

Sometime in early 2012, the project also expects to produce a handbook detailing basic negotiation skills for a general Army audience.

So far, the project has performed six MTT events with units, to include the 25th Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division, according to its website.

In February, the project plans an MTT event with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

During a November trip to Lewis-McChord, the project trained a group of about 30 soldiers, some from 1-23 Infantry and most from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group.

During a workshop, the MTT presented a scenario set in Afghanistan for the soldiers to practice newly learned tactics: An unruly member of a national agency was not cooperating with soldiers, raising bureaucratic roadblocks to their requests by citing, among other reasons, that soldiers didn't understand the agency's regulations.

Trainees were instructed to attempt to gain the member's cooperation by employing "influence techniques" and "negotiation skills," Mundell said.

At MTT events, Mundell runs soldiers through practical exercises to engrain the new techniques into their normal behavior, he said.

Most soldiers can benefit from this type of training, he said.

Because soldiers negotiated terms while on a deployment doesn't mean they are effective negotiators, Mundell said.

In fact, those negotiations may give soldiers a false sense of security, he said, because historically some troops have gotten their way in war zones through luck or force, he said.

"Sometimes they got a result that they wanted, but in the long-term, they might not be any better off than they were before," he said.

And if they didn't receive positive results, "Now the person who comes in behind me has to clean up that mess," he said.

Mundell checks training scenarios through his own experiences and with a Special Forces officer at West Point to ensure they are rooted in reality.

Soldiers have told Mundell the training was very realistic.

To tailor scenarios for specific units, the project asks for some details of upcoming missions.

" ‘Do you know where you are deploying to? Do you know what kind of mission you'll be doing? What kinds of situations?' " Mundell said he asks.

Many of the MTT events were requested by units based on word-of-mouth recommendations from others who took part in the training, Mundell said.

A major benefit of the MTT events is that both cadets and units develop negotiation skills at the same time, Mundell said.

At the academy, Mundell is on tap to teach Negotiation for Leaders, which he calls "one of the most popular electives at West Point."

In the past, the course curriculum focused on operations in Iraq. It is now being tailored to Afghanistan.

During the course's capstone exercise, professional actors play roles of people cadets might find during combat deployments.

Cadets interact with the actors in scenarios that resemble key-leader engagements.

Characters in scenarios include:

• A NATO officer in need of resources.

• An imam who feels disrespected.

• A conflicted local businessman who has suffered ills from both Taliban and U.S. forces.

"The simulations tested the cadets on the various skills developed throughout the semester, requiring them to think quick, react to an ever-changing flow of dialogue and reach a suitable agreement among all parties," the West Point Pubic Affairs office reported last year.

Cadets who aren't enrolled in the course receive a two-hour block of negotiations instruction during military leadership training, Mundell said.

For cadets and soldiers alike, negotiation skills can help leaders communicate with superiors, such as negotiating for clearer orders.

But employing these skills doesn't have to be confined to military operations, he said.

"Leaders can use these skills in just about every relational situation in their lives."

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