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We Need to Give Environmental Advocates The Types of Training in "Negotiating Skills"

That Law and Business Schools Offer

        Let's start with a definition of "skill". Dictionary definitions are inadequate, when boiled down to less than 20 words, so if one uses common sense and experience to describe what "skills" really are, they can include any activity that someone wants to be able to do well, because it can lead to more income, success, respect, competitiveness, or other desired results. But even those aspects aren't enough for a good definition, because they overlook not just one, but two crucial features of how people think about what a "skill" actually is.

         The FIRST crucial trait is this: a skill is any desired talent, ability, or activity which can be improved, if someone works at it – such as, by getting coaching in it, by practicing and exercising it, by reading books or articles about it, by watching instructional videos on how to do it properly, by studying and trying to emulate experts who do it well, and by seeking out opportunities to test and challenge some particular skill, against other players, contestants, rivals, or whatever.

        The SECOND crucial trait is this: in almost any type of skill, and with only a few limited exceptions, there is no such thing as "perfect". Instead, anyone can always get better, at anything called a "skill", if they will diligently keep trying, working, and learning to get better. A simple example: even the BEST athletes – or, more accurately, ESPECIALLY the BEST athletes – are ALWAYS trying – trying hard – to get even better, no matter how good they already are.

        With that as a definition, it is accurate and valid to say that "negotiating" is a skill; and, like any other skill, it can be taught, and learned, and practiced. And, it can be tested, in friendly/sporting contests. And, it can be improved, especially if someone gets competent coaching in how to do it properly, and studies it, as part of a guided learning program.

        Law schools directly and explicitly teach law students the skills of negotiating. Indeed, most law schools even teach it twice: (i) first, as a standard part of a first year course in contract law, required for ALL law students; and, (ii) second, as an elective course, for second and third year law students.

        Business schools also teach negotiating skills, directly and explicitly. Indeed, how could they NOT? Negotiating is an absolutely crucial part of the huge majority of all business transactions (other than simply ordering something from a catalog or webpage, or buying something in a store).

        In addition, anyone who becomes sensitized and attuned to how some tactics work well – while other tactics and gambits usually backfire, and end up creating distrust and making things worse – also will realize how minor daily acts of negotiating, if done skillfully, can help people find more fulfillment, happiness, and other rewards in their private and personal lives. Conversely, the absence of skill, in daily and personal negotiations, will lead to frequent frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness.

        So, that leads to a serious proposal. College professors who sincerely want to try to help slow down global warming should begin developing and offering courses with names and subjects such as, "Negotiating Skills for Environmental Advocates".

        A course like that could provide students with a solid grounding in the facts, since "actually understanding the subject, and the issues that surround and affect it" is one of the most basic starting-point requirements, for any truly skilled negotiator. And, courses like that could compile, use, and spread the word about the best things ever written and taught about negotiating, and about how negotiating skills can be applied to the types of arguments, debates, and exchanges that arise when people debate and discuss large and long-term issues, including global warming and sea level rise. 

          To help drive home that point, here is just one example of a specific, learnable, controllable tactic that law students are taught, in the types of negotiating courses and practice sessions that are offered in law schools.

Example: Do NOT try to SOLVE any points of disagreement, during a FIRST negotiating session

        When two skilled attorneys begin trying to negotiate a contract in behalf of two different clients (e.g., the buyer and the seller of a building, a company, or whatever), the "first round" usually is devoted to simply identifying what the issues and "opening bids" are; and, during that first session, there usually is no serious effort to try to resolve any of the important points of disagreement.

        Even though any points of disagreement usually are discussed at some length – to learn what the other side's position truly is, in detail, and to begin figuring out how strongly committed the other side is, to that position – there usually is no sustained effort to actually resolve and settle those points, during a first negotiating session. Instead of trying to wrestle with and actually settle any "sticking points" during a first negotiating session, skilled lawyers are taught to just gather as much information as possible, and then take it back to the client, to discuss it in detail with the client, and begin developing a detailed strategy, during those private discussions, before making a counter-offer, suggesting a compromise, or whatever.

        So, the result of a first negotiating session often becomes:  (1) a first page, listing all points of agreement; and, (2) a second page, which simply identifies (and which might attempt to summarize, or provide some key phrases about) any "sticking points", without trying to solve them, or propose answers, counter-offers, etc.

        That approach can help both sides reach a better understanding – more rapidly – of whether that negotiation is likely to succeed, and whether it is worth scheduling a second negotiating session, to try to begin wrestling with those sticking points.

        Most good lawyers also use the tactic of listing, on the first sheet, every possible good point, and potential advantage of entering into that deal – including points that are so obvious that the lawyers don't even discuss them. That strategy can help make a list of "good reasons to do this" appear more solid, appealing, and worth a serious effort to try to reach a negotiated deal . . . which, in most cases, also implies more billable hours, for the attorney(s) doing the work (that's another reason why they do it that way).

        So, most negotiations that develop into good, useful, and productive bargaining, usually begin with a straight-forward, non-confrontational, non-adversarial, information-gathering session.

        That is a crucially important insight, for anyone who wants to learn how to engage in good and productive negotiating. That strategy needs to be seriously considered, and discussed, by and among any people, entity, or group that want(s) to engage in good, useful, and productive negotiations.

        A related principle can be stated from a different angle, as a "corollary" principle:

        Most people will be much, MUCH more willing, inclined, and likely to accept and agree that a reasonable and appropriate decision was reached – even if they disagree with it – if they feel and believe that their input, viewpoints, advice, and suggestions were asked for, and were actually listened to, and considered, seriously and sincerely – than if they think that a bunch of (presumably arrogant, condescending, and self-important) bosses simply chose what THEY wanted, and then made nothing more than empty gestures and pretenses of asking for input from people they want to push and boss around.

        So, the negotiating strategy outlined above usually includes – as one of the controlled and learned tactics that should be used, near the end of a first information exchange – a simple and direct question, along the lines of, "Okay, is there anything ELSE you want me to make sure my client knows?" It's an open question, and an open invitation, which gives the other side a full and fair chance to say whatever they want to say.

        And, a good attorney will take notes, while the other side talks. Regardless of whether that attorney will ever look at those notes again, or even mention them to the client, the act of taking notes, while the other side talks, is likely to be interpreted as a gesture of respect, professionalism, and willingness to listen, and pay attention; and, those types of gestures make it more likely that two sets of people, with opposed and conflicting goals and needs, will be able to reach an agreement.


       Those are just a few quick examples of tactics, strategies, and gestures that trained negotiators use, to try to get better outcomes, in the deals they help create and shape. There are plenty more, which can be covered in a single-semester class.

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