May 2011 | 

Battle is the Easy Part: Navy Seals Learn the Art of Negotiating

navy seals negotiations

"In any one day, I can be involved in many different negotiations," explains Navy Seal Eric Johnston. "And no two are the same. I have to negotiate with my supervisors, with my staff officers, with contractors, with Afghan tribesmen, with my wife. I have to convince my boss why a certain type of mission is necessary, why I need to go overseas, or what I can contribute to a project. I need to be able to explain our mission to people on the ground, to our government, to host nations."

Navy Seal Mark Baker agrees: "A battle is the easy part — it's getting there and working through all of the details that's hard."

Johnston and Baker (not their real names) recently spoke with Wharton@Work about their experience in Wharton's Executive Negotiation Workshop: Bargaining for Advantage®. "To be effective," says Baker, "I have to be flexible and have a lot of options available to me when I'm negotiating. Richard [Wharton Professor Richard Shell, the program's academic director] showed us many methods — it's not as simple as win-win. I attended another negotiation program and they covered just that one method, which isn't enough. It's not always possible to collaborate. When you realize that even a negotiation between the same two people can differ depending on many factors, you have to be able to approach that person based on what will work best for the circumstances."

The Preparation Model

Shell uses a preparation model to help program participants, which have included Navy Seals for the past three years, improve their persuasion skills. "You need to understand the situation, to be able to read the other person, and also to really understand yourself," says Shell. "What are your triggers? What does your body language reveal that you'd rather conceal? We do a lot of exercises with extensive feedback, and we videotape negotiation sessions so you can see how the person across the table views you."

Baker continues, "Preparation is critical in the kinds of negotiations we do. You can't wing it when there is so much at stake. You can set yourself up for success by preparing. For example, when you sit down with tribesmen in Afghanistan, using your typical American business approach doesn't work. For them, every decision is built on history. You're at a real disadvantage if you don't understand their culture and how it affects the way they interact with you.

"The other people in the program got that point, too, because we were a really diverse group. There were personality and cultural differences. Some people are very stubborn and others are too cerebral. In some cultures, they won't sit down with you until they get to know you first. You need to be able to work with any type of person — to understand quickly where they are coming from, what their weaknesses are, and then you can build a strategy around that."

Wharton Senior IT Director Dan Alig, who took part in the Executive Negotiation Workshop, notes that it's the fellow participants who "make Exec Ed programs so powerful. Everyone has unique experiences and perspectives that they bring into class. But nothing compared to Eric and Mark. On the first day, we talked informally about our experiences with negotiations. Most of us might worry about losing a deal or a customer, but they worry about losing their lives. Understanding what they face was really impressive, and their perspective gave a broader dimension to the program."

Nonverbal Communication

Johnston noted another important point, "Because we work with translators — who don't always know the local dialects — you have to understand body language. That piece of the Negotiation Workshop is very important in the work we do. You're automatically in a weak position when you're relying on an interpreter, so it's important to know all of these other techniques to help you get around that, to overcome it."

Baker agrees. "In the videotape, I could see the exact time when I got uncomfortable, see what my body looked like and what I was doing. You need to know when to act and appear accommodating, and when to be intimidating. Watching yourself, you can see certain behaviors, like cutting someone off when they're talking, that are perceived as imposing. They can detract from and hurt negotiations. But it's not just your own body language — when you can read other people's you can cater to their particular personality traits."

"When I got to Wharton, I believed the stereotype of negotiating as very cut-throat, very aggressive," says Johnston. "Now I know that negotiations can vary widely, and that it's possible to cooperate to solve a problem. I also know that you need to prepare. You need to do some research, and explore the other person's points of view. The program completely changed my outlook on the negotiating process, and my outcomes will be much better for it."