My Most Important Class In Tembusu College

To the Editor:

Prior to matriculating, I knew I wanted to stay on campus, and I was inclined towards staying in one of the many residential colleges in University Town. It did not occur to me then that I could have visited the various colleges during Open Day, so my search for an informed decision took me online. My search brought me to a post written by another Tembusian titled “The Most Important Class I Took in NUS”, and I was sold on that notion that I too can find the most important class in NUS for myself here in Tembusu College. Of course, there were other factors that I considered, but that blog post was the first thing on my mind when I received Tembusu College’s green and square information booklet as part of my matriculation package. Now in my last semester of undergraduate studies, I reflect upon the 4 years that have passed by faster than they should. What is my most important class here? Could it be my introductory module to psychology or philosophy? Or my exchange programme in a university by the ocean? What about the Honours Thesis that is always feeling like a race against time? While all these form a valuable part of my university experience, a three-day workshop holds a special place in my heart:

A workshop in Tembusu College titled “The Heart of Negotiation”

Why is this short workshop such an important one to me? It was not an epiphany that I experienced, but more of a seed planted. It does not make grizzled negotiators out of university undergraduates, but it provided me with a foundational understanding to start a lifetime of learning. It did not provide me with a foolproof way in getting to yes, but it provided me with the confidence to create and claim value in a principled manner. It did not make me a more self-centered or stubborn individual, but it made me someone more curious about what others have to say. It is important not because the workshop provided the answers to all of my questions, but it is important because it was that first droplet from which a ripple is formed.

Must negotiations be confrontational and adversarial in nature? This is a question that some participants have prior to the workshop. The misconception that it would be three days of continuous verbal sparring puts them off what would otherwise be an eye-opening experience. While you are welcomed to try different approaches, and take on different personas for the exercises, you can always behave as you think you would if placed in the exercise scenarios. What matters more is that you bring with you a respectful attitude, where we respect the thoughts and feelings of fellow participants, and treat opinions raised as equally valid to our own. It is not a course where we find out how best to dismantle an opposing argument, but seek to understand the reasons behind another point of view. The shift from a self-oriented focus to one that is other-focused may not be something we engage in often, but it surprised me at how much we can all stand to gain through a deeper understanding of our negotiating partner.

Were the three days meant to be a frenetic period of information overload? Perhaps you have heard about the readings late into the night, or rumours about being stuck in a seminar room for hours on end talking about healthcare. The thought of more readings standing between you and your well-deserved post-finals break may not be exactly appealing. But unlike your conventional module in NUS, you may find yourself to be the primary source of learning. There were coaches who guided me along the way, and basic negotiation terminology is taught as part of the exercises, but the insights I walked away with was a product of my own effort. It could well be the case that you will leave the workshop having gained very different insights from your neighbor to your left and right. As I observed the emotions and responses from myself and others, I found that the takeaways from each exercise can be much more than what the author intended as the “official” learning points. After all, this is not an accreditation workshop where you become a “certified” negotiator, but an appetizer to promote further self-directed learning beyond these three days of practice.

If you do not foresee yourself negotiating in the future, is the workshop still worth your time? Perhaps the verb “negotiate” brings with it a feeling of formality, where we think of negotiating trade agreements, major business deals or public policy. Buying a house feels more like a process of bargaining, and a quarrel with your partner is resolved through compromise. The process of negotiating is not mutually exclusive from bargaining, compromising or avoidance. Negotiating can simply be thought of as a process of approaching and attempting to resolve a conflict, although the issue at hand can be of varying complexities. Thus, while the context of the exercise scenarios may not be what you may experience in the future, the lessons derived are definitely applicable in the many conflicts that you will inadvertently encounter. While the three days are insufficient to make a successful negotiator out of a participant, you will definitely leave a better negotiator if you do your due diligence. Then again, three days of swimming would not make you a varsity athlete, so why would three days of negotiation training be any different?

As this is meant to be a reflection rather than a review of the workshop, I have intentionally left out certain terminology used, and avoided discussing specific details so as to not excessively divulge the workshop’s contents. It is best that future participants still arrive with an open mind that is willing to learn and experience. It has been three years since I was a participant myself, but my interest in the subject matter has not waned. Be it simple transactions on Carousell or challenging what I perceived to be unfair charges while on exchange, I found that many of these encounters would have been different had I not attended the workshop. Of course, not every negotiation will be resolved satisfactorily in your favour, but let every encounter be an additional page in your learning as you continuously strive to improve.

If you are in a position to experience “The Heart of Negotiation” for yourself, I hope it will impact your life the same way it has for mine. If you are still weighing your options before matriculation, I hope this has contributed to the informed decision you will eventually make. Even if you do not have that opportunity, let me leave you with a memorable quote from John F. Kennedy which was shared when I attended the workshop:

“Let both sides explore the problems that unite us instead of belabouring the problems which divide us”.

Jason Lee, Year 4, Psychology, FASS

Photo credit: Dr Kelvin Pang