What can we learn from jazz musicians about negotiation? Seemingly little. Yet a new book on negotiation by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, makes a compelling case that jazz and negotiations share important traits.
Here are two important strategies Wheeler recommends, among others.
1. Manage the inevitable uncertainty with adaptability, creativity and agility
Wheeler quotes the late ambassador and master negotiator Richard Holbrooke, who was instrumental in negotiating the end of the bloodshed in the Balkans, as describing negotiation as more like jazz than science. “It’s improvisation on a theme… You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”
I agree. Every negotiation involves surprises, many significant and unexpected, and expert negotiators need specialized skills to analyze, influence and manage them and the chaotic impact they have on the process.
What are those skills, and how can you prepare for the unexpected?
Flexibility, a creative mindset, adaptability and agility toward change, a positive attitude facing uncertainty, the ability to improvise, and a lack of fear of the unexpected constitute such skills.
Importantly, we can learn to more effectively utilize these skills. Jazz musicians study and practice these all the time. How can we strengthen these skills? Wheeler suggests you:
- Deeply listen and pay close heed to your counterparts,
- Learn from your counterparts and adapt your strategy and style accordingly,
- Look for surprising non-verbal signals and messages, including on the emotional front,
- Embrace the unexpected and the opportunities it may generate,
- Relax and try to consciously stay loose under pressure,
- Explore beyond your comfort zone – be provocative sometimes,
- Be situationally aware and prepared to modify your game plan if necessary, and
- Take calculated risks where warranted.
This does not mean, however, that you do not extensively plan. I am a huge proponent of strategic planning. It does mean, though, that you don’t become rigidly wedded to your preset plan.
Dwight Eisenhower before D-Day said “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.” Be prepared and flexible.
2. Set the stage for success
First impressions disproportionately impact our views of others. This is true the first time you meet someone. And it’s true for negotiation openings – the first time parties engage. It’s thus incumbent on us to spend sufficient planning time to get our openings right.
Wheeler sets up a useful framework for this crucial part of the process. In essence, he suggests we prepare for openings on three interrelated levels. First, he suggests we evaluate the “who” of the negotiation – the “identity, roles and relationships” of the parties. Will they be a friend or foe? Are your interactions going to be easy or hard? Which do you want? Then develop tactics to accomplish your preferred relationship.
Second, Wheeler recommends we “frame” the task early on – the “what” of the negotiation. Are you “pursuing a partnership, resolving a conflict, or simply haggling?” Will it likely be collaborative problem-solving or competitively win-lose? And again, what do you want it to be and how can you initiate the process to help make that happen?
Finally, set the tone and pace of the process – the “how” to engage – in a way to accomplish your goals.
And don’t underestimate the impact of the “how.” It may ultimately determine if you get a deal.
Published March 16, 2014 The Arizona Republic