Adaptability at the Bargaining Table: How Improvisation and Jazz Music Inform Negotiation Strategy

How improv skills can help you in negotiations

By on / Negotiation Skills

Aggressive tactics and hard-bargaining strategies may, at face value, provide a roadmap to success at the bargaining table but, as the Washington Post’s Kelly Johnson discovered in her interview with Program on Negotiation faculty member Michael Wheeler, adaptability to ever-changing circumstances is essential for the “dynamic” negotiations one encounters in everyday life.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

In his latest book, The Art of Negotiation, Michael Wheeler wanted to explore the seemingly chaotic or random nature of negotiations, and, while conceding that much of negotiation literature and research focuses on quantifiable and identifiable strategies in negotiation, he was still bothered about what the underlying dynamics of a negotiation are, or, as he states, “I had this bug in my head that it’s all well and good in terms of decision trees and probabilities and so forth, but the fact of the matter is everyday transactions cannot be scripted or even necessarily predicted.”

Rather than approach a negotiation like a scripted event, such as a stage play or television show, Michael Wheeler advocates for an exploratory approach to negotiation, one that seeks to adapt the strategies forged in isolation with the random dynamics of a live negotiation. Taking inspiration from legendary jazz musicians, all of whom were famous for their ability to improvise their music in real time, Professor Wheeler advocates for a synthesis of the studied approach advocated by negotiation research literature with this dynamic, responsive approach to negotiation.

Because negotiation is an essential skill for your life and your career, it helps to approach it not only from the perspective of something that can be learned but also as something that can be honed through experience. Just as the greatest jazz musicians have mastered their ability to riff off of one another, so too must a negotiator master her ability to lead laterally while at the bargaining table. To purchase your copy of Michael Wheeler’s The Art of Negotiation, please click here.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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