Learning to Communicate and Negotiate

Students in Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program learn the ins and outs of communications and negotiations thanks to Karl Keller.

Since 2002, Karl Keller has been a principal at Communication Partners, a consulting firm that works with a variety of businesses to help their executives and professionals communicate clearly and effectively. Communication Partners has worked with firms in pharmaceuticals, technology, consulting, and construction/engineering. 

“Our firm helps clients communicate clearly, whether they produce detailed reports, make presentations to senior management and clients, or write emails," Keller said. "And what sets us apart is our wide range of experience in business and industry. Everything we do is client-specific and customized to their needs, whether it’s training scientists and engineers to write better, or helping senior executives with communication strategy.” 

Keller uses that experience as a communication consultant and strategist to instruct students in Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program. Keller teaches Communication and Negotiation and shares best practices in communicating complex knowledge to multiple audiences, negotiating agreements, and resolving disputes.  

As with his consulting work, this course is customized for the design and construction industry.

Keller enjoys being a part of EMDC because the students already have real-world experience and have learned first-hand how good communication is critical in architecture, engineering, and construction..

“EMDC students are fantastic because they've been in the workplace for a while and they understand how important it is to become more skilled in communication and negotiation so they can advance in their careers,” said Keller, who has been teaching in the program since 2013. “(The students) are hardworking and dedicated — they're really model students. What's really great about working with them is that they pay attention to what you're trying to say and they work at trying to master the concept you're trying to communicate.”

Technology has transformed workplace communications and negotiations, but Keller reminds his students that the principles of good communication and negotiation remain the same. Just because a project manager may reach out to their subordinates via Slack or text instead of a face-to-face conversation or phone call doesn’t change the approach the manager should take to get key ideas across in a logical and persuasive way. Keller wants his students to focus on the methods of effective communication so they are able to adapt as technology changes.

“One of the things that's happened in the workplace is shorter, more direct communications,” Keller said. “Platforms make a difference in how you communicate, but nonetheless, the principles are pretty constant. Key messages up front, give them the big picture first, and then provide all the details in a secondary way. This approach will help somebody know what to do and what they should understand regardless of the platform they use.” 

One topic addressed in the class is smart and effective negotiating. Knowing how to negotiate is essential since much of what professionals in executive management do is to get agreement and resolve disputes. An executive in design and construction may negotiate with employees, business partners, or subcontractors, but often the difference between success and failure comes down to negotiating successfully.

To Keller, negotiating is a specialized subset of communication. A person who knows how to get their point across effectively while keeping the interests of the other side in mind will be able to work with a counterpart to agree on a price or the terms of a tradeoff. In his class, Keller shows students how to prepare a strategy before the negotiation begins, apply best practices for exchanging information, and how to close the deal and ultimately gain a commitment.  

“Negotiation is really about coming to an agreement more than anything else, but to be successful requires planning and keeping in mind both what you want and what your opposite wants,” he said. “It’s a discipline with a set of core principles that every executive needs to know.”

Keller stresses the constants of effective negotiations: preparation, clarity, tone, being professional, keeping the big picture in mind, knowing what you want and what the other side wants, and always thinking about the relationship, whether it’s a one-time deal or a longer-term arrangement. 

Platforms for communication may evolve, and the person on the other end of the conversation can change, but students who take Keller’s course will be able to adjust because they will leave the class with a solid grounding in fundamental principles.

“Sometimes good communication and effective negotiation are hard things to do, and stressful,  especially on a construction site," Keller said, "but our EMDC students will leave the program better prepared to be successful at both."

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