Students strike the right note in negotiation

Understanding that disputes can be about more than just money has helped ACU law students Chris Gardner and Eve Van Rhine seal victory in the Australian Law Students’ Association Negotiation Competition grand final.

Borrowing a concept from the Jessie J hit song, Price Tag, the undergraduates booked tickets to the international competition after convincing the judges they had mastered the art of principled or interest-based negotiation.

After six days of competition, the St Patrick’s Campus duo fashioned a settlement in a fictitious dispute over a commercial lease. The ACU team, representing the lessor, compromised on the $660,000 owed in rental arrears to focus on future opportunities between their client and the lessee, represented by the Australian National University Law School.

“There’s more to be achieved through negotiation than by heading off to court,” second-year Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Commerce student Chris said.

“There is often a non-monetary solution to problems once you can uncover some one’s interests behind their position. Ask questions and be willing to listen before you attempt to solve a problem, and when attempting to solve the problem be creative, create options not solutions, be adaptive, and think differently.”

Dozens of teams from across the nation, including representatives from Sydney University, Queensland University of Technology, and Macquarie University, participated in the prestigious competition which was this year held via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

After experiencing face-to-face negotiation as part of an internal TMLS competition last year, Eve can now compare that process with online negotiation.

“It’s a different dynamic,” she said. “Sometimes the audio drops out, so you end up talking over the top of each other.

“And when you’re in different locations there’s another level of complexity. You can’t always pass notes or documents easily.

“The emotion card is another point of difference. Online you can only see someone’s head and shoulders and can’t convey some of the more emotive things. It’s just a lot more effort.”

Only two points out of 100 separated the grand finalists after an hour of negotiation, during which time the ACU team negotiated their way around diversions concerning monetary and legal issues by adopting an interest-based approach.

“It’s been an unreal experience,” second-year Bachelor of Laws student Eve said. “The ANU team was terrific and we congratulate them for getting to the grand final.”

“The judges watched us grow as each round passed, taking onboard their feedback to perfect our skills. We also adapted to the teams that we competed against, highlighting strengths that we could use ourselves into future rounds. The level of the competition was incredibly high with little room for mistake.”

Chris graduated from St Helena Secondary College in 2018 and arrived at ACU via the Community Achievers Program (CAP). He quickly formed a cohesive unit with his Assumption College alumna teammate when they commenced study together at ACU’s Thomas More Law School.

“They worked so hard and they’re really quiet achievers,” TMLS senior lecturer David Spencer said. “They understood you don’t need to be the dominant face on the screen, and that was something the judges recognised.”

The national champion ACU team will now represent Australia at the next International Negotiation Competition to be held in Montana, USA, in July 2021.

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