Planning, preparation, strategy, and tactics are things we often talk about as important when going into a negotiation. They are important but equally important is the ability to think on your feet, to adapt, to read a room and act accordingly. Improvisation is a critical skill that many negotiators overlook.
On one of my earlier episodes on Negotiations Ninja, I spoke with Michael Wheeler, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. Michael believes improvisation is the heart of negotiation.
Many people preach one-size-fits-all negotiation strategies, but those strategies can’t account for the potential approaches from the other side. A person could be collaborative or contentious. They could have emotional baggage that you don’t know about sending them one way or another. Dealing with other people is chaos.
To deal with chaos, you have to be able to improvise. Michael says, “You’ve got to be more nimble, strategically, and you also have to be quick on your feet. I think that’s a given.”
Take the military for example. There is so much strategy in war and military doctrine, but in a system where you would think things are fixed and rigid, there is much more fluidity. There is a fog in all military situations, where you don’t know what you are getting from the opposing side. You have to be able to adapt, to respond to the problem.
Another example is the medical field. Medicine has so many rules, standards, rights and wrongs. Medicine is a science, which would lead you to believe there isn’t much room for improvisation. In diagnostics, however, improvisation can mean the life or death of a patient. If you can’t think on your feet, see all the angles and act accordingly, and step back to determine what you could be missing, you could be risking a person’s life and not doing your job to its full potential. Michael notes that those who can perform in this way are called adaptive learners.
To improvise effectively in a negotiation, you have to an aspiration or a target. What’s the best-case scenario? What’s the worst-case scenario? What’s the most likely thing to happen? What’s the most dangerous thing to happen? Michael says going through the process of figuring these things out puts you in a mind-frame going in that you don’t have a perfect vision, that there are still questions to ask and work to do in the room. “Good negotiators, I think, bring that attitude to the table. The rest of us, I think, can learn to do it,” says Michael.
The ability to improvise in a negotiation situation will give any negotiator a leg up.
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