Negotiators: Prepare to go with the flow

Change and uncertainty mark today’s negotiations. A new book helps us draw on our innate creativity to adapt and thrive.

By on / Negotiation Skills

The deal started with an offhand remark at a news conference. In September, as President Barack Obama threatened U.S. military action against Syria, a reporter asked U.S. secretary of state John Kerry if there were any way an attack could be avoided. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said, before dismissing such a development as unlikely, as reported by Reuters.

Unlikely or not, the idea spread like wildfire. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was the first to snap it up, issuing within days a proposal to draw down Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The White House, Congress, Assad’s government, and the United Nations all quickly warmed to the prospect of resolving the Syria crisis diplomatically. Together, Kerry and Lavrov negotiated the terms of a deal in which the United States would drop the threat of military strikes if Syria dismantled its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

With an off-the-cuff remark, Kerry not only inspired a creative solution to a difficult problem but helped his boss back down from a threat that had proven highly unpopular. The moment epitomizes Kerry’s style as secretary of state, write Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times. In contrast to the scripted, arm’s-length approach of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Kerry operates in hyperdrive, acting as lead negotiator as he jets from one hot spot to the next. Traveling the Middle East with Kerry “is a seat-of-the-pants experience,” writes Landler. “Itineraries are notional. Improvisation is the rule.”

This freewheeling style carries risks: Kerry has made gaffes and, in his rush to get to the next impromptu meeting, left key partners behind. But in his new book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler suggests that there is much the average business professional can learn from improvisatory negotiators like Kerry. Here we offer a few key insights from Wheeler’s book that can help you become a more adaptable, creative negotiator.

Are you over prepared?
Preparation is an essential stage in negotiation, as it is in many realms of life. But through their emphasis on researching interests, options, and alternatives, canonical negotiation texts such as Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1992) can lead us to the false assumption that these critical factors are static, writes Wheeler. In fact, most elements of negotiation are constantly evolving throughout the process.

Wheeler asks you to imagine meeting with a new customer for the first time. She welcomes you to her office and makes one of the following three remarks:
■ “We’re looking forward to partnering with you. Let’s figure out a deal that works well for both of us.”
■ “Good that you could come. My colleagues have put you on a short list of possible providers for this contract.”
■ “It’s time for you to fish or cut bait. We like your proposal, but you’ve got to come way down in price to beat your competition.”

Each statement would likely trigger and warrant a different reaction from you, notes Wheeler. As this example suggests, it would be impossible to script responses to the wide range of attitudes you might encounter in the opening moments of a negotiation, let alone the unexpected remarks and questions you will receive further down the stretch.

Nor would you want to have a script at your side. Overpreparation can cause us to disregard the moments of good fortune and synergy that crop up during the process. The trick, writes Wheeler, is to borrow practices from fields where improvisation is encouraged and actively taught, including jazz, comedy, and sports.

The best improvisers from these realms do three things very well, according to Wheeler: (1) They pay close attention to the world around them, (2) they identify when and how to influence and adapt to others, and (3) they are proactive, taking considered risks to move the action forward.

Soloing and comping
Just as negotiators must assess when to take the lead and when to listen, jazz musicians switch off between soloing and “comping”—accompanying or complementing what the other ensemble members are playing, according to Wheeler. Though remembered for their solos, the jazz greats know when to listen deeply, making split-second decisions about what notes to play in response to what they hear. “None of this responsiveness can happen unless players are receptive and taking in one another’s gestures,” writes Frank J. Barrett in Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

Comping is equally important in negotiation. Through careful open-ended questioning and encouraging gestures, we can draw out useful information and keep talks moving in a productive direction. At the same time, we need to intuit when it’s time to sit back and absorb without judgment what the other party has to say.

If your counterpart makes three demands, two of which are out of the question, resist the urge to immediately condemn them, writes Wheeler. This type of critical attitude can be contagious, leading both parties to paint themselves into opposite corners. Instead, pick up a seed of an idea to praise and expand upon, in the same way that a skilled jazz musician would riff on a phrase she picks up from another player’s solo.

Bend the rules of improv comedy
In the world of improv comedy, every ad-libbed line adds information that propels the story forward, writes Wheeler. Opening a scene by shouting “Hi!” is unacceptable. Instead, performers make what they call—perhaps borrowing from negotiators—an “offer,” such as “Brad! I never expected to see you here at the South Pole.”

Carrying the negotiation terminology further, comics say they’ve reached “agreement” when they build on the other person’s offer, like this response from Brad: “Yeah, when my company said it was giving me the southern territory, I was thinking Florida.” The offer and the agreement become the foundation on which the actors construct their relationship and imaginary world.

Negotiation journaling

Michael Wheeler advises us to keep a journal documenting both the significant and mundane negotiations in our lives, including transactions that didn’t pan out. At the end of the year, review your negotiation fitness: What went well? What deals proved disappointing after the fact? How might you do better?

This type of clear-eyed assessment of our strengths and weaknesses—along with a commitment to improving—can bring us closer to that seemingly elusive balance between feeling comfortable and slightly off balance at the negotiating table.

In a similar manner, wise negotiators understand that being tight-lipped and inscrutable will hurt them as much as it will the other party, according to Wheeler. They also follow another improv comedy rule: “Always agree—never negate.” That is, accept that you’re in Antarctica and don’t try to switch the story to warmer climes. In negotiation, this means trying to find a useful nugget in even the most preposterous statement.

Finally, try adopting the improv comic’s habit of using the phrase “Yes, and . . .” instead of but or no, as Twitter CEO and former improviser Dick Costolo does. “The word no is a verbal stop sign,” according to Wheeler. Artfully expressed nos (such as “Yes, and I would be happy to consider this idea in the future”) protect your core interests while enabling counterparts to save face as you jointly move the conversation in a more productive direction, writes William Ury in The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal Save the Relationship—And Still Say No (Bantam, 2007).

The 80%-20% rule
Musician Ed Sarath estimates that musicians perform best when they’re 80% in their comfort zone and 20% outside it, a sweet spot that negotiators would be wise to strive for, Wheeler suggests. Be too comfortable, and you’ll skate through the process and reach a so-so agreement. But when you’re too nervous, you risk reaching the same average (or worse) result after freezing up at the table.

Plagued by performance anxiety and the fear of underperforming, negotiators often succumb to the latter pitfall, Wheeler’s research with psychologists Julianna Pillemer and Kim Leary shows. How can you manage your nerves? Preparation, that ubiquitous prescription, is important, of course. When we arm ourselves with solid facts and analyses, we improve our confidence and ability to be nimble at the table.

Techniques from other realms may translate here as well. In his book The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance (Random House, 1997), W. Timothy Gallwey advises players to distract themselves from the common fear of looking clumsy when hitting backhands by saying “Bounce” to themselves when the ball rebounds from the court and then “Hit” when it strikes the racket. This type of mantra replaces internal distractions with outward focus. In a similar manner, suggests Wheeler, negotiators can quiet anxious thoughts by focusing on the other party’s movements, expressions, and words.

Negotiators can also quiet
their inner critic by practicing mindfulness—a state of mind in which we accept our passing thoughts and emotions without judgment. Suppose, for example, that you feel your anger stirring in response to a threat from a counterpart. As a mindful negotiator, rather than either suppressing the anger or succumbing to it, you would simply register your irritation at the other person. Along these lines, psychologist Alison Wood Brooks’s research identifies emotional reappraisal to be an effective means of transforming anxiety into a productive state of mindful alertness. Nervous study participants who said “I’m excited” out loud performed much better on a task than did those who tried to suppress their fears.

By practicing improvisation techniques and addressing the sources of your anxiety, you should be able to enhance your ability to think on your feet in negotiation and reach more innovative, rewarding agreements.

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