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Captivating Courses: Popular MBA Course Provides Practical Personal and Professional Skills Around Negotiation

Roberson Negotiations course

Negotiations are a part of our everyday lives—much more often than we probably realize. We negotiate over the sale price of a new car, with vendors for upcoming weddings or when threatening to switch service providers over a price increase. In the workplace, we ask for raises after annual reviews and negotiate business deals to surpass yearly sales goals.

Quinetta Roberson, PhD, the Fred J. Springer Endowed Chair in Business Leadership and Professor of Management at the Villanova School of Business, has been teaching a negotiations course in the Villanova MBA program for the past three years. Roberson says she was teaching other graduate-level courses and realized her students had not been exposed to a course focused on negotiation. So, she got to work and built a class from scratch.

Creating the course was just the beginning. Roberson’s next focus was getting students interested in the course. The popularity of the course speaks for itself. Every semester it’s offered, Roberson’s “Negotiations” elective course fills up at lightning speed and has become one of the most popular courses in the program.

“The first time the course was offered, I was teaching during the registration period and students thought the system was broken because it said the class was full,” Roberson said. “Someone in the MBA office came up to my class and said ‘this has never happened, but your class filled up in three seconds’.”

The class is structured over a weekend, consisting of a few hours Friday night and all-day Saturday and Sunday. Roberson caps her class at 36 students, as she strategically maps out groups and teams—attempting to ensure no student negotiates with the same person twice.

“The classes I’ve seen and taken are most successful when people actually get to negotiate,” said Roberson. “So, how do we do it in a way where students can try it out? This course provides the opportunity to practice negotiations in a safe place. It’s not a high-stakes work environment where the threat of losing something is on the table. And it’s transferrable to many parts of our lives.”

The types of negotiation scenarios and situations vary, but can include negotiating a salary or employment disputes, negotiation with third parties, and negotiation across cultures. On the first evening during introductions, Roberson polls the class, asking students why they are taking the course. The responses are usually a mix between students not believing they are good at negotiation, they have to negotiate frequently in their current job or they simply heard from other students that it was a great class. She uses those responses to guide the weekend. For example, if a lot of students are searching for jobs or just recently went through the process, she might spend more time on salary negotiations.

Students have time to prepare for each exercise and then negotiate. The class then regroups to debrief after each negotiation and discuss learning points. During the negotiations, Roberson walks around the classroom and picks up on different cues among the groups. How are they seated? Who makes the first offer? Are they jumping right into negotiations or are they establishing a rapport first? Are specific tactics being used? What are the negotiators’ demeanor? These become discussion points in the debrief session.

While Roberson asks students to read two books before coming to class – Getting to Yes and Harvard Essentials – it’s most important that her students get the practical experience over the course of the weekend.

“A lot of negotiation books are about tactics,” she said. “They’re really good for preparation, but when you’re in the situation, you’re not going to go down the list and check them off in your head.  You must be able to adapt and maneuver seamlessly. If you know what you are doing, you don’t need to rely on these tactics.”

So, why is the class so popular and fill up so quickly? Roberson believes the hype and intensive nature over a three-day period lets the student walk away with a new set of skills that is different from other courses offered. There’s also the mystique factor. No student knows what’s exactly going to happen.

“It’s important to reflect on why people enjoy it so that every student that walks into the class gets the same experience,” said Roberson. “They’ve heard about the class, but they don’t know exactly what they’re going to experience.”

A key for Roberson is to try to make sure all students arrive at a situation where both sides win, rather than a win-lose scenario.

“If I’ve got to sell you on an idea, which is a negotiation, how do I get you on board? I have to show you what’s in it for you. I have to get you to ‘yes’,” said Roberson. “If someone walks away feeling like they lost, they won’t want to negotiate with you again. The class is about skill building and developing a comfort mindset that allows students to feel confident in themselves.”

One of the most satisfying moments for Roberson is when students come back to her and share experiences of how the class benefitted them.

“I love and appreciate when students come back and say I used this experience to get a new job or broker a new deal at work,” she added. “They walk away from the weekend having not learned about negotiations, but actually having developed the skills to negotiate effectively.”

“Captivating Courses” is a news feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.