Developing Negotiating Skills: A Judge and Professor Weighs In

December 15, 2021
Judge Matt Wright - Negotiating Skills article

Learn how an expert focuses on preparation and mindset in developing negotiating skills—and tests those skills across immersive simulations.

A crucial step toward developing negotiating skills is recognizing what negotiations are all about. Or at least what they are not about.

“I think when people generally say negotiations, they tend to think about tactics and the tricks we see done in movies or playing hardball,” Matthew Wright, who works as a presiding judge in multiple courts, as well as an attorney, mediator and professor, said. “That is a role of negotiations, but that is not true negotiations.”

As a lecturer for senior-level undergrad and Executive MBA courses at Baylor, Wright challenges students’ preconceived notions of what negotiations are and the role they play in everyday personal and professional life. From there, he guides and tests them across a dozen or so simulations that involve environmentally controlled conditions and fluctuating amounts of information.

Establishing the Appropriate Mindset

A lot of people approach negotiations with specific strategies in mind. They think that by being bold, they will have some leverage over the other person and be more persuasive.

“What we try to do is say, ‘No, what is the psychology?’” Wright said. “‘What is the thing behind the person sitting across the table from you? What is motivating them? What is their interest that is going to get them to negotiate with you, for you to get the deal that you need?’ But then also, ‘How do you start developing a strategy that allows them to start talking?’”

Winning negotiations is not about the strong tactics and tricks that people tend to imagine.

“That is just flash in the pan—that is not going to win negotiations,” Wright said. “It might give you a little bit of an edge, it might help move the ball a little bit down the field, but it is not what is going to win the game.”

Another part of the mindset negotiators need to overcome is discomfort with that label. People negotiate more often than they tend to imagine.

“A lot of the students will sit there and say, ‘I'm taking your course, but I am not a negotiator,’” Wright said. “And I always challenge that theory because first of all, if you are in any type of meaningful relationship, unless you live alone as a hermit, if you are in any type of meaningful relationship, you are negotiating every single day. What is for dinner? Who is going to pick up the kids? What Netflix show are we going to stream?”

The reality is that they already have those skills. From a young age, people are taught to negotiate and were rather amazing negotiators. They simply have forgotten lessons about how to leverage people and get exactly what they want.

“I tell my students all the time: ‘Number one, you negotiate constantly,’” Wright said. “‘And number two, you were really good negotiators at once. Let's go back and re-tap that potential you had at one point.’”

Developing Negotiation Skills in a Controlled Environment

Over the course of a 13- or 15-week semester, Wright takes his students through the same number of simulations that put students in a range of unique situations. They work through them and reflect on how they acted and what they learned from the experience.

“I control the environment,” Wright said about one simulation, noting that he did not want to give away too many details so that students could learn too much from this article. “So, in other words, the students walk in, the room is set up in a particular fashion, the lighting in the room is set up in a particular fashion, what is on the screen is purposeful and is designed to trigger either an emotional response, a bias or a feeling. Then, I also will use noise, whether that be music, whether that be background noise, in order to create pressure points for people. They get the facts, they have to deal with the scenario and they have to play it out as if they are in that situation.”

That is just one scenario. Sometimes the simulations involve multiple parties jockeying for position. Other times it is a one-on-one scenario or an internal team-based negotiation scenario.

Another variable is the amount of information students receive. They may not receive all of the relevant intel, and in other cases, they are told to withhold specific pieces of information or state them to generate a particular response.

“Those types of simulations are designed to teach a lesson that develops their negotiating skills,” Wright said. “Most of the time, it is focused on: How do you prepare? How do you plan and then how do you execute your plan in a way that when things do not go correctly, you are flexible enough to make the adjustment?”

Students receive immediate feedback after the simulation. One important point that is stressed is how they followed through on their preparation—a worksheet is offered prior to the exercise that helps them think through what might happen if they are unable to reach an agreement, what the other party’s goals are and what the students’ goals and targets are.

“Most negotiators that I am up against as an attorney or that I see as a judge, they never sit there and think through that,” Wright said. “What happens when they get inside of a business negotiation or get inside of a court negotiation, their emotions and their bias is what is running the show—not their thought process.”

Creating a Well-Rounded Curriculum

With simulations as a highlight of the curriculum for his classes, Wright adds in other components for building negotiation skills. In terms of books, Getting to Yes and Difficult Conversations are basics that, arguably, anyone has to read to become a competent negotiator.

“You need to understand that if you are going up against a professional negotiator or someone that has taken negotiation at any business school in the United States, they have heard of those books,” Wright said. “They have heard of those tactics and you need to understand those and those are based on psychology.”

Other books help continue the theme of diving into important psychological aspects of negotiations. For instance, Wright uses some parts of Nudge to discuss how behavioral economics plays into decision making and its role in business. Both behavioral economics and game theory are featured in discussions about the psychology behind negotiations.

“Those two are going to have a lot of say about how negotiation changes in the next 10 to 20 years,” Wright said.

Also in use are movies like “Oslo” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” which both feature a look at how parties engaged in negotiations. That is not all, however. “It is going to sound somewhat trite, but watch the ‘Godfather’ series, all three of them,” Wright said. “We joke about that from a negotiation standpoint, but there is a lot of the stuff there that talks about the psychology of what motivates people and what is interest-based.”

All of those tools combine with case studies to give students insight into their negotiations—inside and outside of the classroom.

What's Next

Ready to boost your skills as a negotiator and strengthen yourself as a well-rounded leader? Baylor University offers the Executive Master of Business Administration at the Hankamer School of Business in one of Texas’ key business and cultural hubs—in Dallas. Reach out for a one-on-one consultation with our admissions advisers to learn more about each program. Complete the form below and our team will contact you directly.

Request More Information