What is the best way to learn to negotiate? What is the best way to learn any complex new set of behaviors? Learning probably happens best when several pedagogical approaches are combined—didactic teaching, analogical reasoning, case studies, and varied role-plays. But observing effective negotiators in action—in this case, via professional video footage—may also be an important learning method.

Indeed, a number of different lines of research suggest that "procedural learning"—i.e., learning HOW to do something—involves neural processes and structures that are different from the ones we deploy to learn facts, figures, names, and dates. (Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike by only reading a textbook: chances are slim that you could step onto the bike and ride with confidence without having seen anyone else do it, or having had a chance to practice yourself.)

It has become common practice in negotiation training to give participants the chance to try a few new “moves” or behaviors in negotiation role-plays. However, it is less common for participants to see video footage that models effective behaviors—and rarer still to see the work of experienced actors and directors.

Moreover, most training videos are not contextually relevant because they don’t show people in organizational roles who face issues and counterparts that are familiar and credible to the audience. (Imagine watching a biker taking a ten-speed around an oval track, and then you being asked to ride a mountain bike down an unpaved mountain trail; the point is, context matters.)

In the last few years I’ve had opportunities to create negotiation “mini-feature” DVDs for Procter and Gamble and WPP Group. These companies decided to invest in customized, contextually relevant learning materials that would have a high impact on their people. The stories, each about 20 minutes long and covering 6-8 scenes (before, during, and after a major commercial negotiation), were written based on extensive interviewing from executives in the company. We secured budgets and access to facilities that allowed us to engage professional crews and actors. The resulting films show a negotiator using a Mutual Gains Approach to negotiation in challenging, competitive environments where relationships and reputations both matter.

Part of what has surprised me in using the videos is how effective they are at drawing out the viewers’ “implicit theories” about negotiation, influence, leadership, and organizational structure/development—the subtle biases that block the kind of learning I hope to facilitate. For example, if I ask a training participant (particularly someone who has read negotiation books) to describe what “good negotiators do,” he or she can recite all of the “right” answers. But, when I play one of our negotiation films—which show a negotiator operating in a realistic context, with complex issues, feisty counterparts, and organizational politics—that person’s advice to the on-screen negotiator suddenly reflects all sorts of other assumptions and ideas, many of which contradict the supposed “right” answers.

In stopping the video and allowing the audience to offer advice or ‘coaching’ to the protagonist about next steps, many such implicit theories surface, which provides unique teaching and learning opportunities. Sometimes this leads to vigorous debate among participants (including leaders and sponsors in the room) about what negotiation “success” actually means in their organization, about what support the negotiator ought to have from his organization, and about whether “getting tough” with difficult counterparts is actually the most effective strategy.

A second surprise has been that some of the actors (who had appeared in Scorsese movies and Law and Order episodes, among other things) became interested in negotiation and the Mutual Gains Approach through their “role-playing.” Several of them wrote me after the shoot to describe things they had done after returning home to implement a Mutual Gains Approach in conversations with spouses, children, and friends.

Modelling the complex behaviors included in effective negotitation—in this case, on the big screen—seems to help the procedural learning of training participants and to spark additional teaching opportunities.