Spotlight on Pedagogy

Negotiation Education at West Point

West Point provides one example of how the military can teach negotiation.

By Maj. Neil A. Hollenbeck

Soldiers negotiate. If reading that creates some cognitive dissonance for you, then you are like most people. In a typical mental model of military interactions, one receives orders from superiors, gives orders to subordinates, and — if called upon to influence the enemies of his country — applies expertise unique to the military profession. Leader education at the United States Military Academy (West Point) prepares graduates to think broadly about how they influence others — to develop and draw from a leadership repertoire that allows them to choose leader behaviors appropriate to the particular situation and those being led. But the West Point experience has not always prepared future officers to think as broadly about whom they must be prepared to influence.

A new officer graduates having spent years considering how she will influence the soldiers she will lead as a platoon leader. She soon discovers accomplishing the mission and taking care of soldiers requires her to spend only some of her time influencing those over whom she has formal authority. The rest of the time is spent collaborating with and influencing people over whom she has no authority: her company executive officer, the company training sergeant, other platoon leaders, people on the battalion staff, civilian range operations personnel, and so forth. When she later becomes a company executive officer or is assigned to staff, she experiences a simultaneous narrowing of the scope of her formal authority and expansion of the network of people with whom she must cooperate to accomplish missions.

A military leader is likely to negotiate, even if usually not explicitly, in any situation where success requires the acquiescence, cooperation, or approval of those he cannot control. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated to the U.S. Army that leaders operating on the stability end of the spectrum of conflict — waging counterinsurgency, in those cases — must be able to negotiate effectively. An Army platoon leader negotiates combined patrol configurations and routes with an Iraqi Army counterpart who has different interests and a different perception of the battlefield situation. A company commander negotiates with village militia over the deployment of security checkpoints that affect both the security of his outpost and the village he is charged to secure. A battalion commander facilitates rapprochement and mediates between representatives of the national government and local leaders in an area the U.S. Army recently returned to government control.

As a consequence, negotiation has appeared in curricula at West Point and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. But we negotiate every day, even among soldiers within our own organizations. When an officer makes a request of another, refers to a published order or policy, inquires as to interests ("Can you tell me what your commander doesn't like about this?"), or suggests creative solutions to thorny, inter-unit problems, he is using elements of negotiation. But he is not likely to think of the interaction as a negotiation because the connotation of the word, for most of us, calls to mind something more explicit, transactional and adversarial. He can be more effective if his education helps him recognize the full range of interactions that involve negotiation, understand its elements and negotiate purposively.

To that end, in 2006, West Point's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership introduced an elective course called Negotiation for Leaders. In 2011, for the first time, the Department added introductory negotiation content to Military Leadership, a required course most cadets take during their junior year. In the courses, cadets are introduced to principled negotiation — an approach to negotiation developed by Harvard Professor Roger Fisher and his colleague, William Ury, PhD (Fisher & Ury, 1981/2011).

During World War II, as a young officer in the U.S. Army Air Force, Fisher served as a B-17 aircrew meteorologist and later worked in Paris on the Marshall Plan. He devoted the rest of his life to work in fields related to international conflict. In 1979, Fisher founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, which exists today within the Program on Negotiation — a university consortium among Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts. Principled negotiation involves clear distinction between parties' positions and interests, careful consideration of alternatives to agreement, effective communication, collaboration to create options for mutual gain, legitimization of options through use of objective criteria, appropriate delineation of commitments, and mitigation of relationship issues early but apart from substance. The theory provides practitioners with a single, seven-element framework for systematic analysis of negotiation situations (Fisher & Ertel, 1995). The framework is adapted to guide thinking in different ways during each stage of a negotiation process, from planning, to execution, to review.

Negotiation is regarded as a practical discipline and is most often taught in professional schools of law, management, and public policy. Principled negotiation has its roots in the field of conflict resolution. Fisher and Ury drew on their expertise in international law and anthropology, respectively. But negotiations are human interactions, and the forces at work during negotiation belong to the behavioral sciences. Accordingly, cadets studying negotiation at West Point learn to understand themselves, as negotiators, and the dynamics of a negotiation through psychological lenses. For example, in Negotiation for Leaders, cadets apply concepts such as Chris Argyris's Double Loop Learning and the Ladder of Inference (Argyris, 1982). In the last few decades, negotiation phenomena have also become better understood through application of psychological concepts with implications for negotiation, including Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance, partisan bias and cognitive distortion, and psychological safety, to name only a few (Hughes, Weiss, Kliman & Chapnick, 2008). Negotiation is a field that sits comfortably on the boundary between theory and practice. Unlike most institutions, West Point's management, sociology, and psychology programs are housed in the same academic department. We can take advantage of the way that structure positions us to take an interdisciplinary approach to both development and application of theory.

In the past 30 years, pedagogical techniques around principled negotiation have become extremely well developed. Those techniques were brought to West Point in 2005 by adjunct Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership faculty member, Jeff Weiss (JD). Weiss, co-founder of the negotiation consulting firm Vantage Partners LLC, first worked on the Harvard Negotiation Project in 1988 and has taught and consulted in the field since that time. Motivated to serve in the post-9/11 world, he found a mission in volunteering to help develop and teach the West Point curriculum. Within the Department and with support from West Point's Network Science Center, the West Point Leadership Center, and the Army Research Institute, the effort has flourished.

In 2009, as a result of feedback from deployed graduates who had taken Negotiation for Leaders, the Department established the West Point Negotiation Project (WPNP) — a faculty effort to enhance the ability of military leaders to negotiate by more deeply and broadly engaging cadets, providing operational units access to negotiation training and tools, and serving as a catalyst for efforts to improve negotiation training across the U.S. military. The WPNP has taken cadets far beyond the classroom, allowing them to access negotiation experts, attend conferences, conduct research, participate in summer internships, and assist with training seminars for military personnel, including members of provincial reconstruction teams mobilizing for deployment to Afghanistan, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, and Army civil affairs soldiers.

In 2010, Jeff Weiss and Major Aram Donigian co-authored the Harvard Business Review article "Extreme Negotiations" (with Jonathan Hughes) and received the Apgar Award for Excellence in Teaching for their creation of a role-playing, multiparty negotiation simulation that still serves as the capstone exercise for cadets enrolled in Negotiation for Leaders. One year later, Maj. Donigian deployed to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force anti-corruption task force, where he has put negotiation skills to work in support of the task force mission. In that role, Maj. Donigian received assistance from Jeff Weiss, West Point cadets, and other WPNP collaborators.

Since 2010, the WPNP has hosted the annual West Point Negotiation Workshop, bringing cadets from West Point, the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, Canadian Royal Military Academy and other U.S. military service academies together with negotiation experts from military, law-enforcement, nonprofit and academic domains. The workshop is primarily an educational seminar, with blocks of interactive instruction and hands on, role-playing exercises. One of the most powerful portions of the workshop is a panel discussion where cadets hear from recently graduated junior officers who have used their negotiation skills while deployed.

The workshop also serves as a military negotiation colloquium. Following the 2012 workshop, participants from the array of institutions concerned with improving the negotiation skills of military leaders remained at West Point to share ideas about better-integrating negotiation training into the U.S. Army's officer and noncommissioned officer professional development system. The round table discussion, hosted by the WPNP, included attendees from the U.S. Army War College, Command and General Staff College, Training and Doctrine Command Culture Center, Army Research Institute, Air Force Negotiation Center for Excellence, U.S. Army Logistics University, Seattle University and Tufts University.

Our senior military leaders are now making important decisions about force structure and training as we posture for the future. We do not know what missions we will be called upon to accomplish or, when called upon, what resources will be at our disposal. We know that we will do well to make ourselves ready for challenge in conditions of uncertainty by investing heavily in leader development. We can be more powerful, as an organization, with leaders at all levels who are capable of negotiating effectively in any context. Those leaders would also make us stronger and healthier internally. West Point is providing one example of how we can teach negotiation. To have the greatest impact, negotiation education and training should be embedded at all levels of our officer and noncommissioned officer leader development systems, so that leaders' understanding and abilities can grow as they grow.

About the Author

Maj. Neil A. Hollenbeck is an instructor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy, where he is also codirector of the West Point Negotiation Project. Before his current assignment, he served as an infantry platoon leader and company commander in the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions, leading soldiers in Iraq during four separate deployments between 2004 and 2010. He earned an MBA at Duke University and a BS at the United States Military Academy.


Argyris, C. (1982). The executive mind and double-loop learning. Organizational Dynamics11, 5-22.

Fisher, R., & Ertel, D. (1995). Getting ready to negotiate. New York: Penguin Books.

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1981)

Hughes, J., Weiss, J., Kliman, S., & Chapnick, D. (2008). Negotiation systems and strategies. In A. H. Kritzer, S. Eiselen, J. Vanto, & J. J. Vanto (Eds.), International contract manual. Eagan, MN: Thomson Reuters/West.

Weiss, J., Donigian, A., & Hughes, J. (2010, November). Extreme negotiation. Harvard Business Review, 88(11), 66-75, 149.