“A good negotiator can be exactly who you are"

Bruno Verdini leads a popular new class on negotiation skills.

Marol Escajeda ’17 is trained in materials science and engineering, yet she finds that success on the job pivots on her leadership and negotiation abilities. “Your skills have to extend beyond your technical field,” says Escajeda, a materials and processes engineer at the aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman. “You need the ability to handle intense interpersonal situations.”

She and Matthew Basile ’17, an electrical engineering and computer science major, earned their undergraduate degrees at MIT last year. Now a program manager at Microsoft, Basile says: “My current job is nontechnical. I’m working with engineers to get product features implemented on time. I rely on advocacy skills.”

These young engineers are former students in 11.011 (The Art and Science of Negotiation), which has grown into one of the most popular and highest-ranked Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences electives at MIT. “It was one of the best classes I took at MIT,” Escajeda says. Basile is similarly enthusiastic: “In all honesty, 11.011 was by far the most relevant class for what I’m doing now.”

While at MIT, Escajeda and Basile also participated in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership (GEL) Program, which helps develop leadership skills among more than 120 undergraduates per year. “If you appreciate the value of personal interaction, 11.011 is for you,” Escajeda says. “Like with GEL, you’ll get out what you put in, and you’ll find it really applicable to life beyond engineering classes.”

Seeking people skills

The popularity of 11.011 coincides with the arrival of Bruno Verdini, a recent MIT PhD graduate in “Negotiation, Communication, Diplomacy, and Leadership” — an interdepartmental degree he negotiated into existence. In the spring of 2016, Eran Ben-Joseph, the chair of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, invited Verdini to teach the undergraduate course.

The transformation of 11.011 was immediate. Verdini redesigned the entire course syllabus, introducing 25 new sessions with new readings and new negotiation exercises. He capped the class size at 42 to guarantee familiarity with every student and optimize weekly role-playing simulations, which involve practicing communication, collaboration, and leadership strategies.

The subject’s popularity skyrocketed. The course had previously attracted about 35 students per year. In the fall of 2016, 85 students from all five schools and more than 20 departments preregistered for 11.011; in spring 2017, there were 180, and this semester there were 230.

The enthusiasm for 11.011 is evidence, Verdini says, of a broader emphasis in students’ core concerns. “MIT students don’t want to get put in a corner in the workplace to only do things that require technical dexterity, while other people do the management,” he says. “They want to develop their people skills and showcase their strategic vision. And they want more professional recognition for their abilities in this area.”

This is one of the reasons Verdini structured the course around peer-to-peer feedback. He aims to empower both those students in the class and on the teaching team to take center stage in negotiation coaching. “One of the coolest parts of 11.011 is the guidance from the TAs,” Basile says.

Makings of a good negotiator

Verdini’s career is marked by firsts. Not only did he develop a path to his own PhD at MIT, but for his doctoral work in water, environmental, and energy negotiations between countries, he was the first MIT recipient of the Harvard Law School Award for the Best Research of the Year in Negotiation, Decision-Making, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution. This also marked the first time the award went to someone born and raised in Latin America.

This spring, Verdini will offer 11.111 (The Art and Science of Negotiation, Advanced Applications), “one of the first advanced undergraduate courses in negotiation at a top U.S. university,” says his mentor Professor Lawrence Susskind, one of the founding fathers of the conflict resolution field with five decades of expertise. The upper-level course is a direct response to student demand for more of the material — and more of Verdini.

His ability to ignite passion for negotiation is a common theme in course evaluations from the last three semesters. Students discover passion in themselves, and see it in him. “Even when sick, exhausted, or in a horrible mood, I dragged myself out of bed for his lectures,” wrote Tatyana Gubin, co-founder of a thriving startup, in the fall of 2016. “And I would leave inspired, educated, and ready to tackle the next negotiation.”

“Negotiation allows you to share your values and principles with others,” says Verdini, also executive director of the MIT-Harvard Mexico Negotiation Program and author of Winning Together: The Natural Resource Negotiation Playbook, which is published by MIT Press and hits the bookshelves this December. “Our world suffers when people disconnect intellectual decisions from what they feel inside. My teaching and research is structured as a personal journey that centers around negotiation as a means to get to know yourself better.”

MIT students often enter his class aware of only one side of themselves, Verdini adds. They might see themselves as shy, or guarded, or without the personality to be a good negotiator. They discover otherwise. “A good negotiator can be exactly who you are — caring, attentive, and someone who thinks of others,” he says. “You can be all of those things and at the same time lead and facilitate solutions to make a better world.”

Connecting the dots

Ben-Joseph says the class serves the wider undergraduate population by, among other things, shifting their thinking in new ways. “Students learn that negotiation is part of how you deal with ethics, with power, with politics, with decision making,” he says. “They come out of this class more rounded and sensitive adults as they enter the workforce and deal with issues of life.”

In the fall of 2018, MIT students will have an opportunity to take a deeper dive into such thinking with a new HASS Concentration in Negotiation and Leadership, which will offer a diverse roster of classes in the relevant subject area to fulfill an Institute requirement designed to deepen and broaden student learning. 

MIT chemical engineering alumna Alexandria Miskho ’17, who consults in New York City on how businesses account for climate risks, is a former 11.011 teaching assistant who was at the forefront of student-led efforts to create the concentration. “We need to enter the world with a comprehensive negotiation toolkit,” she says.

Jillian Dressler has discovered as much, in tandem with many of her professional female colleagues. Dressler, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, says 11.011 empowered her to push back against discrimination. “As many of us have unfortunately experienced, there are times when I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable as a woman,” says Dressler, now a teaching assistant in the course. “I would never have possessed the resolve to initiate a conversation about it before 11.011. Now I do. I take on difficult situations. I’ve discovered strengths that I never knew I had.”

Story originally published November 2, 2017 by Meg Murphy, School of Engineering for MIT News.