All Educators Are Negotiators

To move complex initiatives forward, finesse your negotiating skills and avoid pitfalls that block collaboration

January 7, 2018
Seen from above, hands of a group of people putting together jigsaw puzzle

Negotiation is about winners and losers, many of us tend to think. In education, the very word “negotiation” may conjure images of tense and adversarial exchanges — teacher contracts, strikes, conflict resolution, or union grievances, to name a few. But have we given negotiation a bad name?

For those who study the practice of negotiation, it’s all about solving complex problems that require the cooperation of others. Negotiation can be positive, constructive, and generative. After all, it’s simply what you do when you can’t achieve your goals completely on your own. And since our goals as educators inevitably require the cooperation of many others, nearly everything we do relies on negotiation.

But just because we’re constantly engaged in negotiation doesn’t mean we’re any good at it. Educators are complex, passionate individuals, committed to doing work that is profoundly personal. When things get personal, emotions arise that can have a chilling effect on cooperation.

People are more likely to cooperate and collaborate when they feel valued and heard. They're more likely to productively engage with one another when they feel connected and affiliated. By taking these needs into account, leaders can drive initiatives more effectively.

Two experts on negotiation — Dan Shapiro, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, and Roger Fisher, a former Harvard Law School professor — offered a way to navigate these complexities in their book Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. They idenfitied five core human needs that people tend to bring to any negotiation — needs that effective negotiators can anticipate. The next time you’re working with people to move an ambitious project forward or gain buy-in for a new initiative, consider the impact of these five core concerns.

1. Appreciation
People are more likely to cooperate and collaborate when they feel valued and heard. While hard work and dedication are rarely in short supply, educators do not always feel appreciated, and students and parents may feel equally unacknowledged. Feeling appreciative of someone else is not the same as expressing appreciation. Educational leaders should make it a habit to express appreciation. Doing so will bolster cooperative relationships.

2. Autonomy
Individuals need to feel that they are in control of what happens to them. While not all decisions can (or should) be made through consensus, educators must be thoughtful about how certain decisions or actions will be experienced by students, teachers, and parents and guardians. An infringement on autonomy helps explain why people push back against decisions that are forced on them, even when they would have embraced those same decisions had they been involved from the start. Educators should develop clear, fair, and consistent processes for decision-making and should honor others’ autonomy when possible.

3. Affiliation
People are more likely to productively engage with one another when they feel connected. We care about people with similar affiliations. Coaches know this well. When individual players start seeing themselves as part of a team, they are more likely to cooperate, make sacrifices, and support one another. Teachers can strengthen affiliation among students by actively building an inclusive classroom community, and school leaders can build affiliation among all staff and students by fostering a unifying school identity. Our work will be more effective when people feel like they belong and are playing on the same team.
 

An infringement on autonomy helps explain why people push back against decisions that are forced on them, even when they would have embraced those same decisions had they been involved. Leaders should develop fair and consistent processes for decision-making and honor autonomy whenever possible. 

4. Status
Cooperation increases when individuals feel that their status is respected. People tend to be acutely aware of how status hierarchies are shaped within an organization. Most teachers can tell which of their colleagues have high status and which have low, and the same goes for students. Status hierarchies can influence participation, making it difficult to garner the support of those who feel that they are not respected. Educational leaders must be in tune with how status hierarchies are taking shape within their classrooms and within their schools. Leaders may need to actively disrupt these hierarchies to ensure that the community can benefit from the insights and perspectives of every member.

5. Role
The concept of role goes well beyond formal titles. Consider an instance of a principal stepping into a teacher’s classroom. What role is the principal assuming: that of a boss, a coach, a colleague, or a friend? The teacher’s perception of the role will impact how he or she will experience the situation, for better or for worse. And on the flip side, leaders are not always clear about the role they are asking others to play. There may be times when a principal wants a teacher to play the role of devil’s advocate, innovator, provocateur, decision-maker, or team player. Educators must be cognizant of the multiple roles they play and intentional about which one they assume — or are asking others to assume — in a given interaction.

While most of us have a deep appreciation of the need to engage others in our goals and initiatives, we don’t always see ourselves as negotiators. Taking on a negotiator’s mindset — by considering our colleagues’ need for and perception of appreciation, autonomy, affiliation, status, and role in each interaction — can help us build the cooperation and collaboration we need to fuel our collective success.

About the Author

Zachary Herrmann
Zachary Herrmann is a program director and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. A former math teacher, he received his doctor of education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
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