Thursday, June 28, 2012

Alumna Spotlight: Rachel Viscomi ’01

 

HNMCP: How did you engage with alternative dispute resolution during your years at Harvard Law School?

Rachel Viscomi: I served as a teaching assistant for the Negotiation workshop three times and for the Program of Instruction for Lawyers (PIL—now the Harvard Negotiation Institute). I was also a member of the Harvard Mediation Program and helped to train mediators at Mediation Works, Inc. in Boston. Essentially, I took every class I could—Multiparty Negotiation with John Richardson, Bob’s (Bordone) Interdisciplinary Seminar, and the very first course Roger Fisher and Dan Shapiro taught on Managing Emotions in Negotiation. Strangely, the Harvard Negotiation Law Review never even crossed my mind. I’m amazed at how many incredible opportunities exist now that weren’t available then. There is a much more focused interest in the field than existed when I was at HLS.

HNMCP: Can you trace any particular influences that led you to study negotiation?

RV: On the whole, I would say that my journey to this work was accidental. Or fated? I took the Negotiation Workshop because a friend recommended it as the best course at the law school. When he mentioned role plays I said, “Uh, that actually sounds kind of awful.” He insisted that the role plays were the best part and that after the first one it stopped feeling uncomfortable and started to just be fun. Erica Fox was my lecturer and Gillien Todd was my TA. Erica and Gillien were incredible and I quickly understood why my friend had called it the best class at HLS. I loved everything about the class.

Maybe I fell in love with negotiation because I’m one of four children, and, as a middle child, was frequently called upon to play the role of mediator. I studied Italian Literature in college and graduate school but ultimately, I couldn’t imagine becoming a professor in it because the subject matter was arcane and of interest to such a small pocket of people. I wanted to do something that would have a greater positive impact on the world. Dispute resolution felt like a natural next step.

HNMCP: What were the most important skills you learned through your negotiation training?

RV: My training has taught me to be curious, to ask good open ended questions, to value and be good at empathy. However, the most valuable thing I learned was more than a skill, it was a mindset—a different way of seeing the world, the assumptions we make, the rules that we assume hold true. For me, the most powerful shift was to question what I thought I knew. Before learning the HLS model of negotiation I was generally convinced that, whatever the topic, my view was correct. There was a comfort to that confidence. The Workshop put the first crack in that, and it expanded quickly and dramatically.  Now I assume that the person I’m talking to has a story within which his or her behavior makes sense and so I am very slow to judge people’s behavior. I actively look for the context I’m missing that could be important. It drives my husband crazy that I’m not willing to call anyone “bad” or make assumptions about their character based on limited information about their behavior. (He’s a prosecutor, so as you might imagine, he has a long list of people he believes belong in that category!)

HNMCP: Can you give a specific example of when these have been useful?

RV: On a daily basis! An obvious example that comes to mind is purchasing my current house. After the inspection the seller’s realtor told me, “Here’s how this works—you come up with a number that you think you need to knock off because of the issues, we knock it down, you pull it back up and ultimately we end up in the middle.” Instead, we wrote a relationship-building letter outlining that we loved the house and were willing to pay a fair price. We explained what we’d learned from the inspection, what estimates we’d received on the work we considered necessary, and what that meant in terms of the purchase price we were willing to pay. We explained that we were not interested in haggling back and forth over the price, but that we were certainly willing to pay a fair price and were open to discussion if they had reliable contractors who could do the work for less or would like to do it themselves. They came back with an offer that did not respond on the merits, but split the difference between what we’d requested and the pre-inspection number. We told them that we appreciated it, but that, as we’d explained in our letter, we were not interested in haggling and wished them the best of luck. (Persuading my husband that walking to our BATNA was our best move was a pretty significant negotiation in itself!) They came back within an hour and accepted the terms of our letter.

HNMCP: How are you using these skills in your current work?

RV: I work for a firm called Vantage Partners in Boston. The firm is, essentially, an offshoot of the Harvard Negotiation Project. I’m in Corporate Education. I help clients think about how to embed skills like negotiation, communication, and influence within their organizations. We work to achieve organizational change for our clients by introducing a common vocabulary and framework for negotiation to help them create more value, stronger relationships, and better results. When I first came to Vantage, it really didn’t feel like a job at all. I couldn’t believe that I was being paid to do what I had loved doing at HLS. It is a job I genuinely enjoy and find incredibly rewarding.

Rachel Viscomi is a Principal in the Corporate Education practice area of Vantage Partners, a Boston-based consulting firm that helps clients achieve business results by transforming the way they negotiate and manage their key relationships. She has worked with clients from a wide range of industries, including sales organizations, pharmaceutical companies, software companies, airlines, and the entertainment industry. She teaches in the Harvard Negotiation Institute and has also taught as part of UMass Boston’s Emerging Leaders Program, Amsterdam’s ADR Institute, The Ombudsman’s Association, and The Citadel. Prior to joining Vantage Partners, she practiced for several years as a civil litigator with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, LLP. She earned her JD from Harvard Law School, an MA in Italian Literature from Middlebury College, and her BA in Italian from Columbia College. She has also studied at the Università di Bologna and the Università degli Studi di Firenze.