Maj. Travis Cyphers, director of the West Point Negotiation Project, was a junior officer in November 2011 when he received his new position as the fire support officer for Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment at Arghandab River Valley, in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. Bravo Company had kickstarted a canal reconstruction project in a village southwest of their command post where the village elder and his people were supportive of their operations, he said.
“The project cost less than I had initially estimated, and I had additional funds left over. I really did not want to go through the hassle of turning extra funds back into the contracting office, so I asked the local village elder if he had any other small projects he would like completed,” Cyphers said.
Cyphers added he and the village elder evaluated the probable outcomes. Due to the lack of water pumps in the village, Cyphers suggested installing small hand-pump water wells based on the intel he had gathered while patrolling the village.
“The local village elder said the wells were unnecessary and suggested other options that would be better for his community,” Cyphers said. “Our conversation ended amicably and I stated I would let him know what I decided.
“Later that week, I went ahead and submitted the paperwork to have a contractor put in the wells,” Cyphers added. “The turnaround between submission and the completion of the wells was relatively short, and so a few weeks later, I returned to the village to check the results.”
Seeking out the village elder, I expected to be greeted with a hearty “Thank You!’”
Instead, Cyphers received backlash from the outraged village elder. Cyphers did not allow himself to understand, at the time, why the village elder was infuriated by his actions. He didn’t want to see the error in his decision, believing that everyone in the village would benefit since clean drinking water was necessary. However, years would pass until Cyphers had finally realized his mistake, he said.
“His village was the closest village to the actual river in our area. We could routinely see women from the village going to the river to wash clothing and return with water. By putting in the wells, I think I disrupted the social functioning of his village,” Cyphers said. “I failed to understand why the village elder told me no. I failed to ask questions to understand what his needs truly were. I assumed I knew best and implemented my plan without consideration for the other party. Without knowing it, I was engaged in a negotiation with that village elder.”
Today, Cyphers serves as an instructor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, and uses his past experiences to help cadets make amicable future decisions when they commission.
Cyphers was tasked with broadly developing negotiation and communication skills throughout the Corp of Cadets during the annual West Point Negotiation Conference at the U.S. Military Academy April 1-2.
The origins of the West Point Negotiation Conference can be traced back between 2003 to 2005. There was a request coming back to West Point of lieutenants tasked with expanding their communications efforts with foreign nationals more than they had previously done during Iraq’s counterinsurgency. To effectively execute the order, lieutenants had to interact and negotiate with tribal leaders and government officials, Cyphers said.
“Allied foreign security force partners like Iraqi and Afghan police, Afghan and Iraqi National Army, and junior lieutenants from the U.S. are being asked to perform exercises and negotiate solutions that they’d never been asked to do before,” Cyphers said. “And so, based on that feedback, West Point started the MG 390 (Negotiation for Leaders) Course in 2006. That was the first year the class was offered, and then as some of those cadets graduated and went out to the force, they could see that they are communicating with the foreign locals better than their peers that didn’t have any training.”
Cyphers added, his predecessors pondered on what would be the most effective way to run an event that can expand and showcase the skills developed in the MG 390 course to the Corps on as wide of a distribution as possible. In 2009, the West Point Negotiation Conference was established.
“The MG 390 course is 20 lessons. The conference is fundamentally about 25% of the course that I teach, and we cover about five lessons worth of material in this conference over the course of two days,” Cyphers explained. “Also, we’re limited in capacity and space that would allow us to run the event effectively. Normally, we usually have about 100 participants attending the course. This year, with COVID, space limitations and social distancing, we were capped at 60 cadets.”
And so, the event began on April 1, Cyphers started with an exercise that made cadets question their own assumptions on what negotiation truly means. Next, Cyphers introduced the framework that is a part of a course that comes from the Harvard University program of negotiation using methods and foundations derived from Harvard’s lesson plans, Cyphers said.
Soon after, the cadets received instruction on how to prepare for a negotiation. The idea is instead of an officer walking in and arguing through a negotiation, he or she should wonder what measures should be taken to prepare for a negotiation and think through the different creative solutions to leave the negotiation successfully.
“What do I think the other party needs to leave with to be successful. And then, how do I apply standards so that both parties think the outcome is fair,” Cyphers said. “Research shows that what we care about most, in a negotiation as far as the outcome, is ‘can I defend it to the people who are important to me. In other words, if I go buy a new car, can I defend that price to my wife or my spouse, and what are the details that I can apply to my statement to convince them I paid a fair price? In a car negotiation, that’s Kelley Blue Book.”
For the rest of the afternoon, cadets thought through different negotiations and how to apply standards of fairness for both parties. Later, they were given two other simulations along with roll sheets to perform two different negotiations. Cadets spent the rest of the day debriefing the things they learned during those negotiations, and afterward they received a homework assignment, Cyphers said.
Later that evening, the cadets attended a dinner at the West Point Club Ballroom where USMA class of 1951 Distinguished Chair in BS&L and former CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, spoke with cadets on the importance of negotiation. The dinner was followed by a question-and-answer session where cadets asked about her experience in negotiations from her time at Pepsi.
Subsequently, on Friday, Cadets reconvened at the Ballroom to continue class work and touch upon the simplicities and difficulties of dealing with negotiators, Cyphers said.
“There’s some exercises designed specifically to show that even reasonable people can reach different conclusions, and what are the things that make us reach those different conclusions?” Cyphers asked. “Also, negotiations are pretty easy when the other party is invested and wants to negotiate with you, but what happens when the other party is a difficult negotiator and they are using aggressive tactics to gain the advantage over you? How do you respond as a negotiator?”
Following this lesson, cadets were tasked with presenting a complex negotiation they are currently going through in their life as part of their homework assignment. It might be a negotiation with a significant other on whether they wish to live on West Point or negotiate with their parents on what vehicle they would like to buy. It can also be as simple as getting a roommate to shut the light off early enough to get some decent sleep, Cyphers explained.
“Everybody says you should put yourself in the other person’s shoes but that’s hyperbole,” Cypher said. “How do we really go through an exercise to try to understand the other person’s perspective?”
Understanding diverse perspectives are one of the key elements of the course that appealed to Class of 2021 Cadet Isabelle Embola. One of her favorite parts of the conference was the drawbridge exercise used to help cadets split into teams explore how power, authority and societal values augment our perspectives and influence how we see the world. Each team was tasked with ranking the characters who are the least or most responsible for the Baroness’s death.
“It’s interesting to hear people justify their choices, and I think, especially after listening to Dr. Schultz talk about people not wanting to be wrong. Initially, I was very shocked at some of the choices that my peers made in terms of who’s most responsible for the death of the Baroness,” Embola said. “But then, looking back on what we’ve talked about and learned, and factoring in assumptions, factoring in information, experiences, schemas, I think that was probably my favorite part of being able to apply all of that during that scenario.”
Cyphers said, through this course, he hopes to guide cadets in becoming more effective communicators so that when they become future officers and the need arises when they must collect intel for their Soldiers, they will understand how to methodically converse with other parties to get the answers they need.
“So many successful operations in the Army are executed through the lens of working together,” Cyphers said. “How do we as a maneuverable platoon and support platoon effectively execute the mission? In reality, I can’t coerce that other platoon leader, right? Maybe we can work out strategies cordially and figure out what the outcome looks like in a partnership, or I’m going to resort to the battalion S3 and they’re going to make you do what you need to do to get the job done and that’s not good for relationships. I hope they become more effective communicators and are able to get better results to meet the needs of their Soldiers.”