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Mastering the Art of Negotiations 

Thomas Gibbons helps fill MPD2 students’ conflict-resolution toolbox with a variety of skills he, himself, has needed during his career as a journalist, lawyer, and arbiter. 

Thomas Gibbons has more than two decades of legal experience and a solid grasp of what separates good negotiators from those who think they are good.  

To Gibbons, those who think they are good negotiators are akin to construction workers who would try to build an entire house with a single flat-head screwdriver. Those who truly know how to negotiate have an array of metaphorical screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, saws, and more at their disposal.  

Thomas Gibbons“A lot of times, people have one approach that has worked enough for them, and that’s their go-to move,” said Gibbons, dean of Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies. “When that doesn’t work, their negotiations fail because they don’t have a toolbox.”  

Gibbons teaches Negotiation/Conflict Resolution to first-year students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Product Design and Development Management (MPD2) program. The goal of the course is to give students an overflowing toolbox to handle the nearly limitless variety of negotiations they might engage in during their careers.  

“With a toolbox, you can be flexible," Gibbons said. "You can read the room, you can read who you’re negotiating with, you can be trained to look at the interests of who’s in that room. It’s not just a win/lose situation.”  

Gibbons has taught at Northwestern since becoming dean in 2002. He previously was a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ., before coming to the Chicago Sun-Times, where, in addition to being the paper’s legal affairs reporter, he led its journalists’  guild. That role is what led him to fall in love with the law.  

Now, Gibbons has his own toolbox as an attorney, mediator, and arbiter in employment and business conflicts. It’s tempting to say Gibbons has seen every type of negotiation tactic in action, but he cautions anyone against having that belief.  

“Yes, I’ve mediated many kinds of situations and learned that skill of working with different people in conflict in a room,” he said. “But it’s a skill that you continue to learn every time you walk into a room.”  

That means the toolbox is bottomless and always has room for additions. Adding as many as possible is important for MPD2 students because of the wide range of situations they are likely to find themselves in, situations calling for different approaches or even a blend of approaches. 

Conflict requiring negotiation isn’t always about people on opposite sides of a legal dispute, however. MPD2 students often will find themselves negotiating with their peers over a product design or idea, as well as with outside vendors. That means applying a special approach.  

“For a lot of people, anything you get is one less thing they get," Gibbons said. "That’s a very myopic way of looking at negotiations. It doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game. Sometimes it’s about expanding the pie.”  

Knowing how to expand that pie is perhaps the most important tool MPD2 students can take away from Gibbons’ class as they look to grow their careers.  

“MPD2 students are often individuals who are young talents moving up in an organization,” he said. “These kinds of skills are leadership skills — being able to defuse a situation, being able to negotiate the best deal for your project and also for the company, too.”  


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