Translating Learning into Practice: Teaching MGA Centered Negotiation and Leadership

The conclusion of the spring 2024 semester marked my eighth year of designing, teaching, and refining negotiation courses centered on the mutual gains approach (MGA). During those eight years, I have taught at a range of institutions from small liberal arts colleges, elite technical universities, large public institutions and workshops for the private sector. Equally diverse, my students bring a range of experience: from young undergraduate students to mid-career professionals from an equally wide orientation of practices. One might think a mid-career consultant and a first year, science inclined, undergraduate student would have vastly different learning experiences, and this is true from the perspective of the instructor but I have found the student learning process – what is easy, what is difficult, what is enjoyable – to be extraordinarily similar. 

I often start an instructional experience with a visual exercise. I ask my co-learners to describe what they envision when thinking of concepts such as conflict or negotiations. These tend to fall within the space I term as the ‘chessboard,’ where opponents square off and attempt to out maneuver each other, until finally one side is forced into capitulation. Then I offer Michael Wheeler’s excellent metaphor for negotiation, as described in his book The Art of Negotiation. Wheeler likens negotiation to jazz, where musicians listen to notes being played by their fellow artists and then build upon those notes to create music that is greater than the sum of any individual contribution. Often folks in my courses are appreciative of the beauty of this idea but skeptical of the real world application. Over the course of carefully orchestrated exercises, reflections, and facilitated discussions one can note the changes in behavior and language that signifies when a student is beginning to understand the possibilities of MGA as well as the development of the skills to capitalize on the opportunities MGA offers. 

One of the greatest difficulties I encounter with teaching is the feeling that I have failed a particular student because they do not demonstrate a shift in their understanding and thinking as expected. I cannot help but feel disheartened when a negotiations course ends with a student committed to the ideas they brought into the course and have not challenged those ideas based on their experiences. But over time, I’ve learned to question my own reactions in these moments. Not only is my time with folks limited, but often the students who reach out to relate stories of how the course changed their lives or interpersonal interactions (and provide examples!) are students who did not seem to grasp the key lessons during my time with them.   

If there is one constant in my teaching it is change. I tinker with readings, assignments, assessment, and classroom experience because I find this one of the many pleasures of teaching but more importantly because I am striving to ensure as many students as possible have as many chances as possible to understand, assimilate, and interpret the mutual gains framework. I say “assimilate” and “interpret” because I encourage students to develop a reflective process to explore what aspects of the MGA framework work well with their natural strengths as well as where they can make modifications that enhance their dispute resolution outcomes. This reflective practice is a powerful tool for student’s learning because they have agency over their learning and continue to build upon the foundations we laid during the course. As an instructor, it is also one of the particularly challenging aspects of my teaching. Often folks are more familiar with providing summaries or external analysis and receiving more objective judgment or assessment from an instructor but rarely are they asked to examine themselves using theory as a lens with feedback from an instructor as a guide (rather than assessment) to grow a reflective practice. 

Students from my first courses in 2016 might not recognize my courses through changes such as un-grading, “real-world” assignments, and changes to the voices in my syllabi, but would see the constant: that I seek to support multiple pathways of learning, build a reflective practice, and strive for them to incorporate the MGA to their understanding of their personal and professional lives.