‘So proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning’

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle

— Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago”

This weekend, I attempted to channel some of this fierceness, humor, and spirit. I didn’t butcher any hogs or handle any freight (read the rest of that poem — it’s great!), but I did negotiate with some formidable opponents in Chicago at the ABA National Negotiation Competition. My partner and I, with the help of our amazing student coaches, advocated our way to the top 16 teams in the nation.

Our journey to nationals started about 5 months ago at Boston University’s student competition. The directors recruit alumni and instructors to judge a school-wide tournament based on some tricky hypothetical scenarios. In the BU championship round, we faced off against some second-year students (repeat competitors, with polish and lots of skill), in a dim and acoustically challenging faculty lounge with six judges analyzing our every move.

Our technique was sloppy, our panic palpable, but we powered through. I smiled nervously the entire time, and said “um” far too much. Apparently, I came across as smug, which shocked me. We got what we wanted from our opponents and then some. Both teams were bound for the regional competition–and lots of practice in the meantime.

BU’s region spans eastern Canada and New England, and the teams that reached the regional at New England Law were universally impressive. Many were formulaic, others were aggressive or overly apologetic. Gimmicks and linguistic tricks were on the table, and every slip was a chance to seize an advantage. We relied on our tried-and-true model: I laid out the facts and rejected offers; my partner justified and explained, and kept us on track. We moved on to the regional final and had our best performance yet, to win a spot at nationals.

After the competition, I managed to get in a little bit of tourism

After the competition, I managed to get in a little bit of tourism

The ABA Midyear Meeting in Chicago also hosted the national competition. Our preparation was brief and intense, and once again, we only faced upper-level students. Our first round was so sweet my teeth hurt afterward; our second round was so jumbled that I couldn’t tell my left hand from my right. We found out we had advanced to the top 16 teams and would have one more chance.

As we read the scenario for the round, we both cheered up. It was full of obfuscating acronyms, goofy characters, and outrageous demands, as usual. This time, though, we were interested in the real-world problem, and we believed in our “client” more than any other imaginary client. In the negotiating room, everything clicked! Our opponents spent an incredible amount of our limited time derailing us with irrelevant issues, and in the end, they pretended we hadn’t come to an agreement at all. But we both felt great about our own performance.

There was no expectation of reaching the final four and winning the national competition, but it didn’t matter anymore. We got our high-note ending; we had done our best.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, what’s in it for you? I asked myself that more than a few times during moments of anxiety and intense studying squeezed in around negotiation events. I gained a few irreplaceable benefits, and you can count on all of these, as well, no matter how far you go in this competition:

  • Self-Awareness: A major component of competition at every level, the self-critique encourages you to parse where you fell short and succeeded–but most importantly, you have to recognize your flaws. What shocked me, however, were the issues that judges noticed that never occurred to me, like my nervous smile coming across as smug. I have reined in my expressiveness and slooooowed down my speaking style. I’m still an interrupter, but that’s my next battle.
  • Confidence: Interactions are all going to be smoother now. I don’t second-guess myself or couch my language in overly soft terms in situations where I used to be much shier about asserting my needs or advocating for what’s right.
  • A resume boost? I already have a summer position, but I figure it can’t hurt to say I’m a “national finalist” in anything.
  • Negotiation skills: Obviously. More importantly, I know what I still need to learn. And I know how to pick my battles.

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