In intercultural negotiation, parties typically spend a great deal of time preparing how they will interact and how the negotiation process will unfold. These best-laid plans often collapse, however, when negotiators find they are spending more time managing cultural differences and coping with misunderstandings than they are dealing with the substance of the issue.
Both in international negotiation and negotiations closer to home, the most adept bargainers recognize when it’s time to set aside carefully laid plans and improvise a new way forward.
Take the case of the recent negotiations to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program that concluded on April 2. As the final round of talks between U.S. and Iranian negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, went down to the wire, the Americans’ talking points to observers focused on “numbers and limits.” The Iranians, by contrast, “waved away” questions about numbers and instead focused on rights and “Iran’s sense of sovereignty,” David E. Sanger reported in the New York Times. Both sides were playing to outside constituents, trying to reassure them that they were staying on message at the negotiating table.
The talks remained tense as the parties blew past their March 31 deadline for a preliminary agreement, with both sides repeatedly threatening to walk out. But they ultimately reached a deal that satisfied those involved, in part thanks to a low-tech communication tool: a basic office whiteboard. On the board, which negotiators reportedly carried from one critical meeting to the next, they were able to improvise proposals—and then wipe them away before they could attract outside criticism.
The anecdote highlights the power of improvisation to foster a more global mindset in international negotiation. In fact, the United Nations honors the art of jazz and its improvisational nature every year with International Jazz Day.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said of this year’s event, which was held April 30, “In times of change and uncertainty, we need the spirit of jazz more than ever before, to bring people . . . together, to nurture freedom and dialogue, to create new bridges of respect and understanding, for greater tolerance and cooperation.”
In an interview with the BBC radio show “World Service” on International Jazz Day, Danish jazz pianist and composer Niels Lan Doky said that “every human being is born as an improviser” and that “every conversation is a form of jazz.”
“The way jazz is played is kind of like a conversation,” Doky elaborated. “When somebody says something, and then the other reacts to it, and then somebody else picks up on it. Jazz is the most perfect example of democracy in action.”
Doky also expanded on jazz great Miles Davis’s famous quote “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
“I don’t condemn mistakes,” says Doky, “because every so-called mistake is an opportunity to create something different from what you were intending.” To illustrate, Doky demonstrated on the piano how a note that at first sounds discordant can be worked into a musical line to become “essential.”
The concept of turning “mistakes” into unexpected opportunities should resonate with those involved in intercultural negotiation. Gaffes, misunderstandings, and confusion can be the norm when negotiators speak different languages and are preoccupied with managing cultural differences.
Novice negotiators—those who expect to adhere to the carefully typed-out script—may be paralyzed by such moments, unsure if they can recover and move forward. By contrast, experienced negotiators find what’s interesting about a so-called mistake and try to use it to do better. That might mean apologizing for a gaffe and initiating a deeper conversation about any apparent cultural differences it unearthed. Or it might mean pushing aside the script and grabbing the whiteboard.
Beyond your comfort zone
Above all, it can mean pushing yourself to do what’s uncomfortable yet necessary. In his book The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise in a Chaotic World, Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler quotes University of Michigan jazz professor Ed Sarath as saying that musicians need to be 80% in their comfort zone and 20% outside of it. “A player who is completely comfortable just recycles past performances,” writes Wheeler.
Given the role of negotiation in international business, all of us engaged in intercultural negotiation would be wise to heed this advice. Learning the fundamentals will keep you grounded—while also giving you the confidence you need to follow conversations into uncharted territory.