New UEP Instructor Aram Donigian on Negotiation and Growth

As we head into winter break, I’m sure some of you are still figuring out your spring class schedule. Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to one of UEP’s newer faculty members – Aram Donigian!

I’ve had the pleasure of serving as Aram’s TA this semester for his course, “Negotiation, Mediation, and Conflict Resolution.” You’ve probably heard of the late, great Bob Burdick, who taught the course for many, many years. If you’re considering taking the course, and you’re curious about how it’s changed since Aram took over, read on! I spoke with Aram a few weeks ago about his background, how he became interested in negotiation, and how he’s approaching this course. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

LL: Tell me a little bit about your background! Where are you from originally?

AD: I grew up in northeast Oregon in a small logging community, the town of Elgin. It was a small town, population of about 1,800. [In] my graduating high school class we had 47 students. So very, very much rural America. After I graduated from high school, I spent a year as the Oregon Future Farmers of America State President. So I did that for a year, then I was accepted to West Point, and I went to West Point for my four-year degree, and then upon graduation from West Point, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army.

Aram didn’t start studying negotiation formally until eight years later, when he had the opportunity to go back to West Point and teach. He went to Tuck for his MBA to prepare him to teach, and that’s where he met Jeff Weiss, who has continued to be a lifelong mentor and friend.

AD: It was really in his course that I, through the power of reflection, I realized just how many mistakes I’d made in negotiation in my professional as well as personal experiences. We were forced to journal and consider these experiences, and apply the concepts and really analyze what we had done. I always think that this course is best taught when it’s behavioral. We don’t just analyze but we actually ask, what did I say? What did I do? What were the costs or the benefits of doing and saying what I did? And so through the power of reflection, I looked back and I just saw a lot of failure, a lot of room for improvement, a lot of places where the resolution that we reached was far less than optimal.

Aram is remarkably frank and upfront about his own failures in past negotiations. He describes them in detail, in an attempt to escape what he describes as our socially-conditioned “pathetic need to look good.” He does this to encourage others to be equally self-reflective, but he also sees himself as a lifelong learner, still growing in his own journey as a negotiator.

I think the best teachers, at least the best teachers I’ve had, have been the ones who are on the journey with us, and they are learning at the same time. And I often feel that I’m probably learning more than my students are, because I’m working through the material. It never, it doesn’t get old. I feel that I’m continually learning. And I’m changing things.

Aram Donigian

A major focus of the course is shifting our mindset about negotiation, which is a word and a process that makes many people uncomfortable and fearful.

AD: It’s an incredibly loaded word, and it triggers a mindset for so many people. The moment you say “negotiation” and everyone immediately thinks of like, their very worst car buying experience. It was interesting, listening to Brené Brown recently, and she talked about “conflict resolution” and she was using a different expression, which was “conflict transformation,” which really gets to more of what we’re trying to talk about, right?

Because in this course, we’re talking about moving from the perspective that negotiation is confrontation and compromise, to the idea that it’s about collaboration and creativity. That’s what we want students to get, and that requires us to make that shift. Call it constructive conversations, call it more meaningful dialogue, but it’s resolving our problems and differences in ways that are going to be beneficial going forward. So some of the things we discuss are, you know, how do I prepare better? How do I handle resistance in somebody who’s pushing back and saying no more effectively? And, you know, how do I handle it when I step into a multi-party negotiation, and there’s lots of stakeholders, and some of those are at the table and some aren’t? I need frameworks to kind of manage to navigate through that.

Aram has taught negotiation to all kinds of people – from undergrads, to business students, to Army Lieutenants, and corporate executives. I asked him how he approaches those different contexts, and he said they’re not as different as you might think.

AD: A lot of times I’ll start a session by saying, who do you negotiate with in your professional life? Over what sorts of things? What do you find challenging about those? And what’s the cost when you don’t get them right? And what’s interesting is in the first two columns – who are you negotiating with, and over what sorts of things – those will be unique to that audience. But once you get to the challenges and the cost of getting those negotiations wrong, those things get incredibly similar. Because those challenges – having to deal with limited resources, or different perceptions of the problem, or relationship tensions – those sort of things are very consistent in the costs, you know, around broken partnerships and the ability to move forward. So it’s interesting to be able to see where there’s difference and uniqueness, and being able to talk about these concepts in the context in which people are living and working, and then still be able to say that a lot of these challenges are somewhat universal.

It’s a tremendous opportunity, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be at UEP, at Tufts. I looked in great detail at Bob’s syllabus to see what he had done, knowing that his syllabus, like any of us who teach, had evolved and refined over time, and so I wanted to look at the way he approached things and be able to have an appreciation for that – and then integrate in those things that I find to be really helpful and beneficial for negotiators to be able to understand. I can’t, you know, subtract my background, and so I bring in some of the military piece and try to balance that with business examples and examples that I know students will encounter out in the real world. So I think it’s bringing to the table a great foundation of the past, and then what does the field bring, and then injecting my own unique approach.

LL: And you have the unique additional challenge of teaching entirely over Zoom! How have you adjusted the class for that format?

AD: The challenge of teaching over Zoom is just you miss the human interaction with students. I miss that component, and the feedback because you don’t get any real-time kind of feedback. You know, I tell a joke, and my jokes aren’t very good anyways, but usually at least one or two people will laugh and so at least I get that feedback. And so I think just not getting that human connection and responses is a challenge.

What I’ve liked about Zoom is probably two things. The first is the chat feature on Zoom allows students to drop in thoughts they’re having. Rather than raising their hand or waiting, they can just drop in their stream of conscious thoughts. And they’re often, more often than not, those comments in the chat are brilliant. And I think it’s caused me to pause and think about how I bring that into the traditional classroom, you know, when we get back to there, because I think a lot of those thoughts don’t get said, because people don’t want to raise their hand or be put on the spot, and it feels like a lower threshold, just to drop it into chat. The other one is that it’s forced me to re-look at some pedagogical approaches that I’ve used for a decade, and say, so how do I do the same exercise? Or how do I get to the same learning points, but now we’ve got to do it over Zoom? So that’s been fun for me. Because, you know, I’m constantly learning, both as a negotiator but as a teacher, too. And so the challenge of having to relook and rethink what is working. and so it’s kind of fun practicing some things that are different from lesson to lesson.

LL: For any student who is thinking about taking this course in the spring, but is undecided for whatever reason, what would you want them to know?

AD: I’d like them to know that it’s intended to be a course that they’re going to walk away from and have something that will help them be more effective in their negotiations. There’s something they will have that they can apply right away, that will make them more effective. It’s really about how we get things done with others, and by others and through others, and it should align well with other courses that you’re taking. And so the idea that this is how we put into practice, the ideas that we have elsewhere through problem solving. And that there can be tremendous positive impact when we get negotiations right. And I really believe that within UEP very specifically, one of the things that excites me is the idea of “practical visionaries.” What is encapsulated in that idea is both a very optimistic vision of what we can create, and a very solid grounding in the need to be able to execute, and I would say those two things come to life in this course.