The Oxford negotiation approach
We interview Programme Director Tim Cullen and Tutor Paul Fisher about one of Oxford Saïd’s oldest executive education programmes
Founding Programme Director Tim Cullen has recently taken the decision to stand down from his long-held position on The Oxford Programme on Negotiation. He will remain a crucial member of the programme team with the same level of teaching involvement as before, alongside his diverse portfolio of other activities outside of Saïd Business School. Here, Tim is interviewed together with Paul Fisher, who will be taking over as the new Programme Director after this November's iteration.
Tim, what, for you, is the most important aspect of this programme?
T: When we started the programme, it was very much based on what they were doing in the US. There are a lot of fundamental skills in negotiations which you’ll get in pretty much any programme in the world, and they all use simulations and role-plays.
But something I noticed when I was first involved with one of these other programmes is that participants were engaging in the simulations and then joking about how they lied to get what they wanted.
I thought, ‘We don’t want to be turning out people like this!’ So, the first session I ever taught was about trust and ethics in negotiation, and the whole issue of behaving well towards the other side. This is incredibly important: behaviour is reciprocal, so if you behave badly then the other side may do likewise. If both sides are lying it makes it difficult to figure out the value of the various issues over which you are negotiating.
What do you need to be a good negotiator?
P: You need to be a good analyst; you need to be able to take in lots of data and recognise what is important and useful - not just for you but also for your negotiating counterpart – and you need to be able to constantly ask the question ‘Why’. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes is essential to negotiation.
You need to be a good listener, because listening is reciprocal, and negotiation is all about reciprocation. How many times have we all not heard something that somebody else is saying because we’re too busy thinking about the even cleverer thing that we want to say next?
Finally, I think the biggest thing is just self-awareness, being aware of your own biases in the decisions you make as well as the biases on the other side. These things can be taught, although perhaps some people are more naturally inclined towards the introspection needed for self-awareness.
How do you bring the theoretical aspects of the programme alive, other than through the simulations?
T: There is always a way to make connections between a piece of theory and someone’s personal experience. For example, a common psychological trap into which negotiators fall is confirmatory bias. We start by talking about an academic experiment conducted about ten years ago in the US. This involved two focus groups – one in which all the group members were 100% in favour of capital punishment and another in which they were completely against capital punishment. Both groups were given the same, carefully balanced article about capital punishment, which contained equal numbers of arguments for and against the practice. When interviewed afterwards about the article, everyone involved in the experiment said that it confirmed everything they had always said. People tend to pay attention to what they already agree with, and ignore everything else.
Naturally everyone hearing about this experiment is interested, but convinced that they would never fall for the same trick. But I then ask the group if anyone has any experience of starting a company. Most of them have, so I then ask if anyone has had a failure in starting a company. A few of them will admit to this, so I ask, ‘did you always listen to everybody when they told you the downside of what you were planning to do?’ There is usually a pause, and then they say, ‘No -- I only paid attention to the bits that said we were going to be a fantastic success.’
You’ve fairly recently introduced coaching to the Negotiation programme. How does that work?
T: From the very start of the programme we thought that it would be a ‘nice to have’ but it seemed logistically quite difficult to do. Given all the role-plays we do, it was difficult to work out how that could be combined with coaching.
About three years ago, though, we cracked it. The solution is to have three coaches or tutors: three quite different people who watch all the role-play and simulations and observe everything that is going on. They give immediate feedback and also hold “surgeries”, so that participants can talk to them about specific questions or challenges that emerge during the exercises. And they are available informally to chat during meal times and breaks.
P: As a tutor, I found that my role was to support participants on their learning journey over the week. It was particularly useful for some participants to speak to the tutors and work out what they should be taking away from some of the big sessions, and how they can relate it to their day-to-day working lives.
Tutoring is a much more listening relationship where you help guide participants rather than the instructive relationship that you normally get through the various sessions. You can also make sure they are keeping up with things. If there was a session that they struggled with a bit, it’s a lot easier for them to sit down with a tutor and go over it rather than discussing it with everyone in the wider forum. It’s an enormously powerful addition to the programme.
How do you choose the tutors?
T: We are quite careful about making sure the tutors have different styles and backgrounds. We have a core team of three, but Paul is a trained coach as well, who stepped in recently when one of the team was unavailable and has a strong background in business including many years running his own company. Jim, an American lawyer who normally teaches arbitration was the first tutor we brought in two years ago. His style suits self-confident people. We also have Marta, a very gentle female professor from Portugal, who is very sympathetic with people from varied backgrounds. Then there is Ning, who is very good at figuring people out and is a good listener as well. Interestingly, she is Chinese and took Swedish citizenship about five years ago, so she can be very helpful for people who are having difficulty with the cross-cultural negotiation. Certain types of personalities like certain types of tutors so it works out very well.
P: And before they come on the programme participants send us a written piece about a current negotiation challenge they are facing. The tutors get all of those ahead of time and look at them, so they have an idea of the challenges they think they are best suited to help with.
What aspects of the programme do you, as faculty, enjoy most?
T: One of the most enjoyable aspects of the programme for the faculty is designing little games with psychological traps for the participants to fall into. It is fun for us simply to watch them fall into the traps, of course. But it is rewarding to see the light dawning on participants’ faces as they understand what we were doing, and even more so when we watch them put the techniques into practice in the simulation sessions.
Tim, you will soon be stepping down as programme director and Paul will be taking over. Will you still be involved with the programme?
I know from experience that Paul is a tremendous organiser - and one of the nicest things about working with him is that everybody likes him.
The programme director is like the executive producer of a movie, whose role is to bring everything together: all the participants, all the people in the School you have to work with; all the faculty. There is a lot of coordination and building relationships, and assembling the right people. Paul already has all these attributes in spades. He is also quite tolerant of me which helps.
I am going to carry on teaching and I will enjoy that – but I’m not going to be telling anyone how to run the programme.
Paul, are you looking forward to taking on the mantle of programme director?
Absolutely. I think it is an outstanding programme about an incredibly interesting subject that is becoming more and more important.
We have a superb faculty and I think the tutorial side is a vital aspect of the programme too. It helps hold the participants’ hands and take them on that learning journey through the week, ensuring that at no stage do they fall through the cracks and gain maximum value for the optimal experience.
It is really important to us that participants take away all these key tools and start using them from day one, so the tutorial side is really effective in that respect. If you look back at the alumni of the last 15 years it is a fantastic list of incredibly impressive people and a lot of them have fed back to us over the years how they are using the skills in huge negotiations.
I have worked with almost all the faculty and tutors before, so I think it will be a seamless transition, and I look forward to seeing the programme go from strength to strength the next few years.
Interested in The Oxford Programme on Negotiation? Find out more.