Bruno Verdini is executive director of the MIT-Harvard Mexico Negotiation Program and a lecturer in urban planning and negotiation at MIT. He teaches The Art and Science of Negotiation, one of MIT’s highest ranked and most popular electives (with over 500 students from 20 different departments pre-registering per year), and leads training and consulting work for governments, firms, and international organizations around the world. The research underpinning his new book with MIT Press, Winning Together: The Natural Resource Negotiation Playbook, was the winner of Harvard Law School’s Award for best research paper of the year in negotiation, mediation, decision-making, and dispute resolution. He talked with MITEI following a recent seminar in which he discussed his research and shared expertise on negotiating for mutual gains.
Q. What drew you to study negotiation, and has your interest always been in conflict resolution, or did that evolve over time?
A. I fell in love with the field because it requires a full engagement, with mind, hands, and heart. Negotiations are present in every single professional activity and in our daily personal lives. They entail feeling comfortable with the unknown but curious about how to render it familiar, through individual preparation and collaborative decision-making, showcasing the ability to persuade and the desire to be persuaded, as well. As such, it is an eminently human endeavor, highly analytical and at the same time spiritual. Whether we find ourselves with family, friends, colleagues, partners, or foes, negotiations offer an opportunity to communicate and pursue our principles and aspirations, and as such, a chance to learn from each other (and inevitably, about ourselves!). That’s a transformative opportunity. Whether we have the foresight, willpower, and humility to root out our blind spots, move away from vicious cycles, and build new and better bridges, is up to us. I embrace that responsibility at the heart of the field, as it involves constant self-reflection and the belief that we can learn from our past to change our present and build a better future. In sum, I experience negotiation as an exhilarating expedition that brings new challenges every day, and where our moral compass plays a crucial role.
Q. For your book, you interviewed more than 70 high-ranking officials who were involved in U.S.-Mexico negotiations around energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico as well as water and environmental resources within the Colorado River Basin. How did your conversations with them inform your thinking on the kinds of challenges people need to be aware of and overcome to maximize the potential for successful negotiations?
A. Look around, at work or on your way home, and you’ll see people with self-serving biases and faulty beliefs that cause them to miss opportunities and arrive at needless standoffs. Look inward, and you’ll probably see a couple of hurdles keeping you from being your best version too. Decades of empirical research support the notion that we tend to see stakeholders and situations in biased ways, with harmful effects at the negotiating table (and beyond). We all struggle with change in different ways at different moments, so, without proactively documenting and practicing against these traps, once we return to complex, ambiguous, stressful, highly competitive, and rapidly changing situations in our professional or personal life, the cognitive and motivational biases that besiege us tend to re-emerge. Against this backdrop, on a transboundary scale, I wanted to examine and piece together, through the eyes of the stakeholders on all sides and across all levels, whether and how these blind spots and faulty beliefs had been dislodged, as part of the efforts to solve high-stakes resource management conflicts that had lasted for over seven decades. In my experience, whenever you focus on how people work side-by-side against the problem (rather than against each other), good insights tend to emerge.
Q. Which negotiating strategies do you consider crucial no matter what area you’re working in, be it natural resources, politics, business, or another area?
A. There are so many, depending on the scenario, the stakes, and both the processes and outcomes we want to foster. In Winning Together, I focus in on 12 strategies in approximate chronological order, from well before a negotiation is initiated to follow-up measures after an agreement has been implemented. One element to reiterate is that there are great differences between acquiring power and wielding it effectively. A zero-sum mindset, which is quite frequent in the world, can secure the first, but is seldom useful for the latter. If we want to address the complex challenges that besiege our communities, instead of blaming each other or kicking problems down the road, we have to foster leadership practices that better unearth all valuable sources of information and empower willing stakeholders to shape meaningful action. Communities need to provide each other the opportunity to build together and test new courses of action during a pilot period. Such trials can garner support, easing fears of the unknown by securing an end date from the outset. Once the pilot is underway, stakeholders can experience its impacts firsthand. Should the pilot result in more benefits than costs, the stakeholders will become advocates for this approach. In sum, a commitment to put ourselves in the other sides’ shoes, when intertwined with reciprocity, tends to lead to more creative solutions, a shared sense of fairness, and resilience in the implementation of partnerships. Communities thrive when we do that.