Huddled around an easel in Barth Hall at the U.S. Military Academy’s Camp Buckner, Staff Sgts. Patrick Jenkins and Seth Glover worked to make changes to a negotiated plan that would allow an Afghan election to be conducted safely.
They had to decide the right number of polling places, how much security would be present at each one, what media would be allowed to cover the elections and whether women would be allowed to vote. It was a delicate negotiation that required them to consider the varied interests and agendas of all the parties involved.
After making their final adjustments, the duo walked back into a side room and pitched their plan to their fellow Soldiers portraying an American company commander, an Afghan company commander, an Afghan national police chief, the Afghan sub-district governor, the Afghan women’s affairs director and a local mullah who were negotiating to plan the election.
The multi-party negotiation was the final exercise for the Soldiers from the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade as part of a four-day training session with the West Point Negotiation Project, which is part of the West Point Leadership Center and teaches military leaders how to negotiate during complex situations. The mission of an SFAB unit is to train, advise and assist partners and allies. That mission requires them to interact with foreign counterparts on almost a daily basis and work together to make sure the needs of both sides are being met.
After returning from a deployment to Afghanistan, the 2nd SFAB reached out to the negotiation project to request additional training on the “soft skills” they felt they were lacking, said Capt. Wes Cooler, team leader for Combat Advisor Team 2131, 2nd SFAB.
“Coming here and being able to get some formal instruction on negotiations and how to really plan for and execute negotiations is going to be exponentially beneficial to what the 2nd SFAB is really designed to do which is advise counterparts,” Cooler said. “You can’t advise without being able to negotiate well.”
Over the course of four simulations, the Soldiers were taught how to approach the negotiation process in a way that would allow all parties to be satisfied with the result instead of seeing it as a win-lose situation.
“This week what we focused on is a concept called principled negotiation, where instead of looking at everything as horse trading or quid pro quo, how do we find the underlying interest that both parties have to have, then help them meet those interests?” Capt. Travis Cyphers, the director of the West Point Negotiation Project, said.
The principled negotiation training taught the unit to approach a negotiation as more of a collaborative process than a combative one. The change in thinking requires them to enter the negotiation with a better understanding of the other parties involved including the area, the culture and other underlying factors that could impact the end result. Cyphers said the negotiation project training talks a lot about the psychology of a negotiation and how the other party’s core concerns such as their pride, status or role impacts the process.
“Anytime we come in contact with a partner force, we should be automatically thinking, ‘OK, what’s this guy’s underlying (motivation)? What’s his bottom line? What are his underlying interests, fears and concerns?’” Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ortiz, team sergeant for Combat Advisor Team 2131, 2nd SFAB, said. “Then using that to reach an agreement.”
The idea of a win-win situation is initially taught through an arm-wrestling exercise, Cyphers said. After being shown a picture of two people arm wrestling, the Soldiers were told they’d receive a point every time their opponent’s hand touched the table. Thinking of it as a win-lose situation causes them to follow the traditional rules and fight against each other, Cyphers said. When they realize the goal is to amass the most points and not defeat their opponent, the two parties can work together instead, which will allow them both to accrue more points than they would while fighting.
The lesson carries over throughout the week as the trainees go through simulated exercises and eventually the culminating multi-party negotiation.
During the final exercise, the SFAB team split into two groups. Within those groups they each played a different role and had to work to get the best deal for the party they represented.
Much like the arm-wrestling exercise, they were encouraged to find creative solutions. For one group, that meant changing the election to a multi-day process to allow for more polling locations to be open with adequate security in place. The change allowed more parties participating in the negotiation to have their needs met than a single day, American style election would have.
“The element that we probably should take into account when we’re negotiating, and we least think about, is the human aspect of it,” Ortiz said. “Obviously you’ve got to have a plan, but instead of coming at it with an agenda of you against me, I’ve got to make you do this, actually understand that most times you’re probably not going to get everything you want. It’s better to have both parties on the same side of the table and attacking the problem objectively, than coming to the table from other sides and attacking each other.”
The 2nd SFAB was one of three units to ask for additional training after a deployment, Cyphers said. The four-day training, he added, was a beta test of the impact the negotiation project can have on SFAB units prior to potentially incorporating the lessons into their initial schoolhouse training.