Adapted from “What Negotiators Can Learn from Improv Comedy,” by Lakshmi Balachandra (lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management) and Michael Wheeler (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
You’re onstage without a script, relying on your mind and wits to come up with lines and actions that advance the game. Should you trust your fellow players? It seems you have no choice. You have to say something and hope you achieve the desired reaction from your audience.
Such is the task of a negotiator—and a comedy improvisation performer. Like improv performers, great negotiators have a knack for being quick on their feet. They seize unexpected opportunities and respond swiftly to sudden threats. They sense instantly when they’ve stepped on someone’s toes, and they have the grace to make just the right apology. For many of us, such moments of recognition come too late; only after we’ve left the meeting do we think of the perfect response.
The good news: Quickness can be learned, whether you have abundant natural talent or only a little. Comedic improvisers learn fast thinking by following certain rules. By mastering them, every performer has the chance of earning laughs.
One cardinal rule of improv comedy is acceptance, which includes not negating what your counterpart says or does. If someone begins a skit by shivering and saying,” Gosh, it’s cold up here at the North Pole,” it’s bad form to respond, “What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of the Sahara.” Improv comics accept each other’s “offers,” even if they’re unexpected or unwanted. Without the “yes, and…” norm, players would battle each other to define the scene and their relationship.
In negotiation, when the other side makes an unrealistic proposal, a firm “no” can be essential. But you’d often be wise to follow the “yes, and…” rule. Suppose a contractor interested in remodeling your office suite floats this proposal: 1) a floor plan that’s tricky to implement but perfectly suited to your team’s needs; 2) a price quote that’s slightly higher than you’d like; 3) completion in 10 months rather than your desired six-month time frame. If you’re not careful, you might immediately rattle off all the reasons why the third item is unworkable.
Before yielding to that negative impulse, consider where a “yes, and…” approach could take you. You might say, “I appreciate your willingness to accommodate our floor plan, which allows us to reciprocate on price. Now let’s figure out how to meet your need for extra time without causing us big headaches.” They may push back, but the “yes, and…” approach solidifies your progress and avoids painting your counterpart into a corner.
`Saying “yes, and…” isn’t easy in negotiation. When you’re on the receiving end of an unworkable demand, you may feel your only choice is to cave in or fight back. If you’re quick on your feet, however, you may identify an alternative: accepting a glass that’s half full and then coaxing your counterpart to top it off.