Negotiation Research: Negotiation Skills from the World of Improv for Conflict Management

A Negotiation Skills Q&A with Michael Wheeler, author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World.

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Back in 2013, we interviewed Michael Wheeler, HBS Professor and PON faculty member, about his critically acclaimed book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. In his book, Wheeler introduces his powerful, next-generation approach to negotiation that takes into account the dynamic, and often uncertain, nature of negotiations. Effective conflict management and adept improvisational negotiation skills are an asset to any business negotiator in the global economy and The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World distills the negotiation research into techniques and skills businesses can implement immediately.

Of this book, Ben Cherington, General Manager of the Boston Red Sox says, “Wheeler knows this subject as well as anyone and shows us how the best negotiators are like great scouts; constantly probing and challenging assumptions to find the value that is beneath the surface.”


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.


A Departure from Win-Win and Hard Bargaining Negotiation Skills

Michael, your new book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, is a departure from standard “win-win” and “hard-bargaining approaches to negotiation. How is your approach different?

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from friends and colleagues in the field. My approach to negotiation differs in that it takes into account real-world interactions between parties by looking at the uncertainty of negotiations and how to develop flexible strategy when you have incomplete information.

Negotiation cannot be scripted. Your goals may change during the course of negotiation, a little or a lot. Unexpected opportunities and obstacles may pop up. Your across-the-table counterpart may be more or less cooperative than you expected. My approach to negotiation addresses these possibilities.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

The idea of negotiation dynamics has interested me for a long time. In my negotiation research and teaching, I was always looking for case examples of companies or leaders who were particularly agile. In the 90s, I became interested in complexity theory and non-linear systems, which I found highly provocative yet abstract. I asked myself, “What’s the practical application?”

Through this exploration, I began to look at other fields where agility is key. For instance, though I’ve never played an instrument, I’ve always found it fascinating that musicians, even complete strangers, can get together and engage in on-going give-and-take.

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said, “The real power of jazz—and the innovation of jazz—is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.”

In fact, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, past winner of PON’s Great Negotiator award, told us, “Negotiation is like jazz. It is improvisation on a theme. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”

So it’s clear that the equation works both ways. Almost all the Great Negotiators we’ve honored have struck that theme of being adaptable strategically, and quick on your feet moment to moment.


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.


Negotiation Skills and the World of Improv: Discoveries in Negotiation Research

You draw some of your negotiation lessons from the world of improv. What was your most fascinating discovery you made during your negotiation research?

What I learned about military maneuvers is important. There’s a misperception that military strategy is very rigid. Yes, there’s a chain of command, but there’s also a military saying: “Plans go out the window with first contact with the enemy.” In an uncertain situation, you have to think through your best- and worst-case scenarios.

It’s imperative that you assess, “Under what case might my counterpart be eager to deal with me?” and also, “What could turn things for the worse?” Good negotiators think about a plan, A, B, and C, and they even have an exit strategy if things don’t work out. Military doctrine can teach us a lot about decision making in rapidly changing environments.

Negotiation Skills: Improv Can Be Learned

What will people be surprised to learn when they read this book?

Although we can’t script negotiation, improvising is not making it up as you go along. It involves its own particular discipline, its own mindset, and its own techniques. You shouldn’t just go with the flow.

The good news is that improvisation can be learned. There are tools and techniques and a fundamental outlook that great improvisers have and we can learn from the best practices of master negotiators and improvisers in other arenas, whether they’re in the fields of jazz, military, chess, or psychotherapy. There’s a wealth of practical knowledge out there, and I try to bring it together in my book.

What other insights will readers gain by reading this book?

Attitude is very important. You have to recognize what is in your control and what is not. You have to understand that there’s another party who may be more or less creative, more or less trusting, or more or less cooperative. Understand their tendencies so that you can evoke the most constructive behavior. In some cases, it may mean offering carrots; in other cases, you may have to show that you’re carrying a stick.

Negotiation provides poor feedback. If you don’t come to an agreement, there are a variety of possible lessons that you could draw. You may conclude that there was no room for agreement, but it may also be possible that you overplayed your hand or weren’t sufficiently creative. So you have to be careful about lessons from past experience, understanding that you only have half of the story.

But you can learn from experience if you have the discipline beforehand to write down what you know for sure, what you’re assuming, and how you’re going to test those assumptions. And then when you’re done with the negotiation, you should ask yourself, “Was I surprised? What did I discover that I did not foresee?” While some surprises come out of the blue, in retrospect you may spot certain things that could’ve been expected and prepared for. You want to look at the process by which you planned for negotiation to sharpen your sense of anticipation in the future.

Have you read this book on negotiation skills? What did you think? 

Click here to purchase The Art of Negotiation from the Program on Negotiation’s Clearinghouse.

MICHAEL A. WHEELER, Class of 1952 Professor of Management Practice, Harvard Business School; Editor, Negotiation Journal and author, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World.

For more of the latest in negotiation research, click here.

 Originally published in 2013.


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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