Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Bruno Verdini

Providing and Soliciting Feedback

Bruno Verdini, Lecturer

Class: The Art and Science of Negotiation, 11.011
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Urban Studies and Planning

Key Takeaways

  • Instructors who use a coaching approach in their classes can help students identify and build upon their strengths and interests.  This is a particularly useful strategy when building interpersonal skills. 
  • Zoom allows students to practice a communication style that will serve them in an increasingly digital world. It has the added value of providing a recording that allows students to review and reflect on their performances.
  • By treating both students and TAs as valued members of the team and responding to their suggestions, instructors can create a more dynamic and motivating classroom environment. 

Interview Transcript

0:00 What class(es) did you teach?

I teach two classes that I designed from scratch. One is called The Art and Science of Negotiation and the other is called Leadership in Negotiation: Advanced Applications. The first class has a long history at MIT, have been taught for many decades by excellent faculty for many years. And when I was entrusted with running the show for the first time, as MIT often does, they gave me the space and the opportunity to start from scratch and rethink, what should be the approach?

Counter to what you see in many other trainings, the way I structured the syllabus in our classes follows more of a spiritual journey rather than a technical step-by-step approach to how should you engage in a negotiation? And by that, I mean that sometimes perhaps people will be like, let me first teach how do you open the conversation to negotiation, then how will you create and enlarge the pie, and how you divide it, then how you close. And the way we go about it in class is much more full of curveballs, so that you don’t necessarily know what part of the journey we’re exploring. And therefore, you have to reveal much more of who you are, what you believe, what you think is fair at the moment.

And it’s that contrast, which mimics life much more, that allows us to identify on a weekly basis, OK, how are students responding to the materials? How do we refine and advance them moving forward? How can we edit exercises? How can we edit readings? How can we edit conversations so that the process is always alive?

And so it’s that constant engagement with the participants and the colleagues teaching the class with me. And they are absolute colleagues. My TAs are not focused on, let me grade this or that exercise. They’re actually providing genuine feedback on how we could best do this or that.

That’s certainly very empowering, because it means that the class is every season– and that’s why I use the theme of sports. Every season it’s different. We may have a playbook, but that playbook better change based on what our players showcase is most important to them.

2:28 How did you adapt the class for a remote teaching environment?

This Zoom dynamic certainly creates 36 black boxes with your torso. The communication, therefore, of what you’re going through differs. But what you still control both them and we on the teaching side, is that level of enthusiasm and attention that you bring to the table to the reactions I will still see there.

And so I wasn’t– as we were transitioning from in-person to online, particularly that first spring semester, where the pandemic became a tragic reality, I think that the main message that I wanted to convey to my students was we’re keeping 100% of the learning objectives. You’ve devoted so much passion to hope that you get a spot in a lottery in our class. And as we transitioned to online, we will put our heart to ensure that you get that entire experience.

And it meant that the first step was that positive mindset, that everything is achievable. And so the class is a touchstone to awaken in you a sense of insights. And it’s up to you as a lifelong learner then to take the steps to manifest a certain set of virtues that will ask you to unfold and evolve, as I saw.

And so that takes time. That takes commitment. And all the credit to our students being willing and brilliant enough to realize that the fact that we were moving from in-person to online did not change at all that responsibility. And on the contrary, we could lead a set of innovations in how we delivered our materials and experiences so that this journey would be honored.

4:23 What were the benefits of teaching remotely?

That process, traditionally live, has seldom a record of it. And so you may recall what happened a certain way. But it might be very different from how it was seen, because we don’t have a mirror that is usually conveying to us how we look like when we speak, in what moments our emotions went in this or that direction. And perhaps not even do we have the awareness completely of how we thought we were responding to an insight of the other side, we thought we were respectful and engaging with it. But in practice, our eyes or our mouths convey disapproval, even if it wasn’t intentional.

And so what the video dynamics of online training provide is a very easy, inexpensive way to be able to ride away have a video of your negotiation, on the basis of it look at yourself and your peers, then contrast with the video of all their peers, and therefore be able to question what you did well and what you might do differently next time in a very empowering and engaging way, particularly if you approach it with curiosity and a sense of humor. And so in our live trainings, we always film a set number of negotiations with iPads. Or sometimes in executive training, we bring in professional filmmakers.

But in a large classroom as mine, you’re unlikely to be able to record every single negotiation. But once you transition to online training, you can do so. The student can do it at home. And right away, they have the recording in their desktop.

This tragic pandemic is still raging on. But at some point, God willing, it gets resolved. And we return to in-person training. Some of our negotiation will still now continue to be carried out through digital means, not only because the world is moving into directions through which significant meetings on the business side of the equation or a government equation will happen through video conference, but because it will also empower our students to have an immediate feedback inside through the filming experience that they all have.

6:47 What principles will you bring back to in-person teaching?

I’ve always realized that in every heritage that you have, either of your nation or your culture or your religion, you have agency in determining what you choose to focus on. And there is enough wonder, sacrifice, drive, love there in the world to follow an example from. And so when I teach and in my relationship with every student, that’s the energy that’s driving the process.

As soon as I start negotiating, my main focus is not, let me see what is it that they’re doing that is wrong, rather humility to right away embrace and be joyful about everything that they’re doing right, and build on that and communicate it and express it. And it’s not a given. The student has to have that same attitude towards their peers. And so in negotiation in my class, certainly, it is not OK to phone it in, because if you don’t come in prepared and really giving your all to the negotiation, the person you’re hurting is not only yourself, but the person who was going to negotiate with you or the larger group who was going to negotiate with you.

And that sense of reciprocity, of responsibility for the other, if we can manifest it in the classroom, both in how I prepare and how the students prepare, enlarge it, not only the themes we can explore, but the impact we can have socially, because then we can really discuss that when you’re negotiating, as some of the great experts in the field explain, it’s not about how can I have an effective deal with the person in front of me. That’s achievable. Any brilliant mind can make it happen.

But actually, how can I have the conscience, the awareness to be responsible for what happens to the larger society being impacted by my decisions? And it’s that level of responsibility, of reciprocity with one another that even extends beyond a classroom, extends beyond an organization, extends beyond a community, a city, a nation, is what’s necessary. We want to see different leadership in the world.

The world is full of human beings that found a way to acquire power, resources to benefit themselves. Across history, cultures, political systems, you name it. It’s pretty obvious. But doing the opposite through the way in which we think, we speak, and behave, that really requires moral stature and drive and strength. And hopefully our classes are one step in that journey that I trust our students to manifest in this world and genuinely make it a better place, because they found that voice, that inner voice that guides them to really put some magic in this one.