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Avi Goldstein on how negotiation can be a game-changer in all areas of life
Avi Goldstein would love to bottle the magic he sees when teenagers discover the impact effective negotiation could have on their lives. As founder of the Brussels-based Pathways Institute for Negotiation Education, Goldstein and his team organise workshops with Belgian schools on navigating the myriad interactions that life brings. For students, whether it’s negotiating with a friend, their mum, a nightclub bouncer or their future bosses, the same principles apply.
Based on an integrative methodology developed at Harvard Law School, Pathways’ Game Changers workshops – which are in English – also bring together pupils from diverse backgrounds, by pairing schools with different languages and cultures. With the US Embassy in Belgium, Flemish schools network Scholengroep Brussel and the King Baudouin Foundation US among its partners, Pathways involved 240 pupils from 12 schools last year and plans to expand to more than 300. Goldstein – who’s also president of the American Club of Brussels – talked to ING’s Dave Deruytter at Coworking Les Galeries in Brussels about the joy of seeing students lit up by their lightbulb moment.
What career path brought you to this point?
I started in a consulting firm in Boston that was spun out of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Its mission is to bring those ideas into the world of business – working with large companies on how they negotiate with partners, suppliers and customers, and internally, applying problem-solving negotiating techniques. That’s where I cut my teeth on the principles and tools of this method, where you try to transform negotiation from an adversarial exercise into one where you expand the pie by working with your counterparts.
Should we all learn negotiation skills?
Negotiation is not just a legal or economic exercise. It’s something we all do every day, constantly communicating around what I want, what you want… with our family, our associates, our neighbours. That inspired the idea of creating an institution that would bring this into the educational sphere.
What strategies work best?
There’s not necessarily one strategy for all situations, but there are useful guiding principles. Many of us develop assumptions or habits and it’s useful to become aware of those and be more flexible. Not to learn a ‘right way’, but to expand one’s toolset. Negotiation is often seen as a transactional exercise of offer and counter-offer. We help people to frame it as problem-solving. We’re exploring interests and concerns rather than haggling. That also introduces skills around communication, perspective-taking and creativity.
In our educational work, we’re guided by the acronym ASK – attitudes, skills and knowledge. What are my attitudes towards negotiation? Is the best way to bang on the table like a tough guy? Or have I developed a passive, nice-guy attitude to avoid confrontation? Our recommended third way is a collaborative stance, where I can be both cooperative and assertive. But that takes some skills. Without practice it can be frustrating, and so we fall back on our old habits.
How did you expand from corporates to students?
It started with a decision to move overseas, to Jerusalem, where I did a master’s degree in non-profit management and leadership. That created a break in my career and an opportunity for experimentation and reflection. In addition to pursuing creative projects like documentary film-making, I had the opportunity to facilitate negotiation skills workshops for secondary school students, and it felt like I discovered my calling.
I continue to work with adults in a variety of organisational contexts and teach university workshops and courses. But, since finishing my degree, I decided to throw myself into building an organisation to mainstream ‘negotiation education’ for secondary school students. I saw the transformative impact first-hand. That experience of seeing students from different backgrounds, go through an experiential workshop together – where they're learning hands-on, discovering a different way of thinking about negotiation and seeing the relevance to their life, all while breaking through boundaries and stereotypes – is magical.
In addition to my work here in Belgium, Pathways’ sister organisation is active in Israel, bringing together teenagers from diverse Hebrew and Arabic-speaking communities. Last year we had more than 800 students and dozens of educators go through our programmes. It’s inspiring.
What makes Pathways different?
With Game Changers, we’re not working with the schools as an extracurricular activity but partnering with educators who want to bring programmes in as part of the school day. The other unique factor is that we’re not just working to impact individuals but deliberately using the space to bring students together from different backgrounds and communities. They discover that they can actually sit down and work things through with someone who might seem quite different. Over time, and as they grow into positions of influence, we hope they can keep these connections and this toolset, and the sense of possibility and curiosity about people, to create a shared society where everyone can hear each other and work together.
Why did you bring the concept to Belgium?
Like many people, I moved to Belgium initially for personal reasons, as my wife relocated here for work. Through some well-placed introductions, a conversation started around the idea of creating a Game Changers programme in Belgium. Sometimes once you throw yourself in you just meet the right people, and I met folks who were active in education who got excited by this idea and supported getting it off the ground. I’m really grateful that they believed in this vision.
Has Belgium been receptive to it?
One thing that’s unique here is the diverse set of structures within the body politic, like the language communities’ responsibility for education, not to mention the internationality of Brussels. Yet there’s a certain separation between educational systems and communities. As I speak with teachers and principals, there’s a tremendous interest in bridging social, economic and political lines. I’m not the only person with this insight – other groups do work to give students this experience.
Just like there's Erasmus for international exchanges, it’s important to get on the train and go to Flanders or Wallonia, if you live in Brussels, and vice versa. Even having a meaningful experience in another neighbourhood within their city can broaden a student’s perspective and sense of possibility. That’s part of what Game Changers participants do – we pair schools and they each host one another.
What’s next for Game Changers?
We are looking to expand nationally. Last year we had 12 schools around Brussels with 20 students from each participating. This year, we’re planning to get to 320 students and are moving beyond Brussels. In addition to the two-day workshop, we’re building a leadership network, as we see a real appetite among these teenagers for more. This year we had 26 students from participating schools who opted to meet, in their own time, and we’re aiming to continue and grow that.
What kind of scenarios do the students role play?
After reading their side of a scenario, students sit down with another person from the other school – whom they have just met – and have to decide what to disclose, what to ask and how to negotiate the situation. The first role play is about two friends who have a conflict over an electronic device that one lent to the other, and it was returned broken – and it’s not the first time this friend has done that. So they have a substantive issue to negotiate but also a relational issue.
The second takes them into a high-stakes life-and-death scenario, where they need a very limited resource and discover that the other party is pursuing this same resource for their own matters of life and death. How do you reconcile this? They really immerse themselves – it teases out some of the fundamental dynamics of negotiating on high-low bargaining and compromising, versus a more communicative, problem-solving approach. It creates one of the central ‘aha’ moments of the workshop.
Do you enjoy life in Brussels?
I’ve fallen in love with it. I find it very accessible – the scale, the neighbourhood life, the buildings, the ability to get around in a reasonable amount of time. It’s beautiful and eclectic. The eye always catches another detail, the facade of an Art Nouveau building, a hidden courtyard or a ‘secret’ park. There’s a kind of magic in the city, if you only look for it. And there’s a certain wavelength of how people interact that suits me. I like the combination of informality and formality. You say hello, goodbye, good day… you acknowledge each other. But you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Any advice for newcomers?
One of the things that has unlocked Brussels and beyond, for me, has been moving around by foot and bike. It’s about crossing these implicit barriers, whether it’s a neighbourhood line, a street or a canal. Rediscovering the joy that comes from getting on a bike has also been a way of discovering where I live, in Brussels and beyond.
What does your downtime look like?
I’ve always been physically active and joined a group that was organising basketball games. I like to read, and I’m looking to get more active in volunteering. I also love to get out into nature. Just being able to go sit with some trees, read a book, go home, is one of the gifts of living in Brussels.
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time. Photo: Bart Dewaele