Harvard’s New Online Negotiation Course

The control room for HBX Live! at public broadcaster WGBH


The chance to teach a wider audience wasn’t the only appeal of the Negotiation Mastery course. For Wheeler, it was also a chance to return to his roots, review the content and delivery top to bottom, and craft something truly original and exceptional. “I go by the theory that, ‘If it is not broke, break it.’ I was very intrigued personally by what would happen if we went back to square one. What can we do better in an online environment than we could in a traditional classroom? It enabled me to rethink what people needed to know to be more effective and also how people really learn and then create a program that marries those together.”

It wasn’t an easy process for Wheeler. In fact, he wasn’t even paid to develop it. His satisfaction came in stretching his abilities. “You can quote me that this is a labor of love,” he quips, “but it was a labor of compulsion. I really wanted to see how we can push pedagogy in the negotiation realm. It was a labor of challenge, too. I really wanted to see what it would be like with a clean slate.”

It was also a labor of time. “Let me put it this way: I have written books in less time than it has taken me to do this project,” Wheeler says, adding that he plans to make ongoing improvements to the course based on feedback. Even more, he humbly notes that he is part of a larger operation that includes, at minimum, a dozen people. “It couldn’t be a one-man show.”

That said, Wheeler points to an enriching boomerang effect on his Harvard classes. “I’ve used video clips that we’ve gathered for HBX in my MBA course, which wrapped up this month. The students found them very engaging.”

Michael Wheeler


Still, Wheeler admits to being a bit “wowed” by how the new course turned out. Part of that stems from his bedrock vision, which prized the pairing of diverse industry perspectives, learning styles, and cultural experiences.  Even more, he wanted students to taste the freewheeling paths that negotiations sometimes take. “Negotiation is a broad field and various experts have different perspectives on it. I wanted to be careful that this wasn’t the world according to Michael Wheeler. I’m very interested in the improv nature of negotiation too, the fact that you can’t really script it when there’s another strong-willed party that you’re dealing with.”

However, Wheeler takes his greatest pride in the workbook component of his course, which provides students with an avenue to reflect on their experiences and refine their strategies. The workbook contains three elements in the course: First, students outline a strategy before going into a negotiation, so they can go back and identify what they correctly anticipated, along with what didn’t go according to plan — and why. Students also evaluate their skills and tendencies, such as their goals and tactics; and finally they gather feedback from their peers in a personal profile to better gauge the gap between personal perception and outside reality.

For Wheeler, the workbook component may be the most valuable element of the course. “Even after they’ve taken the course here, they will have a template or matrix that will allow them to continue to learn from experience,” he explains. “In the end, it gives people who already have some experience the chance to look in the mirror, get feedback for peers and see how their results are comparing with where other people are. They also get a more finely tuned assessment of their strengths and where they can and should improve, so they can build on that.”


The workbook may also be the most difficult aspect to replicate in any other negotiation course outside HBX, Wheeler continues. “In theory, we can do all of this in a standard negotiation course, but it would require any number of polls and a synthesis of all of that information. The platform does that all behind the scenes.”

Harvard Business School on a beautiful spring day in 2016

In the bigger picture, where does Wheeler see students and pros alike go wrong in negotiation? He argues that one of the biggest mistakes is applying a one-size-fits-all strategy. In his view, negotiations are far more fluid situations that are grounded in variables like context and the nature of the other party. That requires someone who can be assertive without compromising the working relationship. “In this class,” he says, “we want people to understand that there is inevitably a tension between expanding the pie and dividing it.”

He continues: “My hope is that we can improve people’s ability on the horizontal (relationship) and vertical (problem-solving) axes, so they can flex themselves and be the kind of negotiator that is required in a particular situation. There are some people who are very good at hard bargaining and others who are good at problem-solving. Most of us have to do both of those things, and this course is designed to help with just that.”


There is a popular maxim that goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Michael Wheeler has seen this warning realized plenty during negotiations. That’s one reason why preparation is emphasized so heavily in his course — and perhaps the fastest way to make a 10% improvement.

“Negotiating is an ongoing process of getting a better sense of the terrain, gauging more accurately what the possibilities are, and adapting accordingly,” he says. “I think that requires crafting strategies and having high aspirations, but also testing your expectations by imagining worst-case scenarios so that you know when to exit a negotiation (not everything is negotiable) — or when, if you get half a loaf, you’re doing quite well.”

That comes with the caveat, however, of not blindly following a set strategy to the very end. “I think we try to promote pliable thinking so that people have a plan,” he says, “but the plan doesn’t have them.”

As a Harvard MBA, Patrick Mullane took the negotiations course nearly 20 years ago. In his experience, negotiation is as much a core skill as finance, marketing, or strategy. His pitch for the course is simple: You’re going to need to do it — and do it very well — if you want to go anywhere in business. “Unlike other disciplines, I cannot imagine a single person in any position who wouldn’t need better negotiating skills,” Mullane asserts. “Whether you’re in a nonprofit or for-profit, really senior or relatively junior, or negotiating a sales contract or a salary, there’s just no place that I can think of where negotiation wouldn’t be applicable or help you at some point.”

To learn more about the Negotiation Mastery course — and register for it — click here.


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