There's a saying in the military: "Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy." Even General Dwight Eisenhower—who oversaw the most ambitious military invasion in modern history—said, "Plans are worthless." But he added an important caveat: "Planning is everything."
Both propositions apply in negotiation, as well, according to Michael Wheeler's new book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. As the title suggests, he sees negotiation as an art rather than an exact science.
“By emulating what jazz masters do, we all can become better negotiators”
"You can't script the process," says Wheeler, the MBA Class of 1952 Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. "Whoever who sits across the table from you is likely to be as determined, as smart, and as unpredictable as you are. You can't dictate their agendas, attitudes, or actions any more than you'd let them dictate yours."
As a result, Wheeler is skeptical about one-size-fits-all negotiation strategies. An approach that succeeds in one context could be disastrous in another. That makes him equally critical of the two mainstream negotiation approaches: win-win, in which parties creatively search for mutual gain, and hardball, where each party ruthlessly presses its own advantage.
"Win-win has much to say for it," Wheeler says. "But it's not appropriate in every case. If the other person refuses to collaborate while you sincerely disclose your priorities, you'll certainly expand the pie, but they'll capture the lion's share." But always taking a hardline stance also can backfire, he says. "That approach often tramples creative problem-solving."
Wheeler says that master negotiators don't shackle themselves with rigid plans. Instead, they're strategically agile, quick on their feet from moment to moment. That's not the same thing as winging it.
Preparing For Uncertainty
"Preparation is essential," he says. "You want to learn as much as you reasonably can before getting to the bargaining table." As Eisenhower suggested, it's essential to bake uncertainty into your strategy right from the start.
"There are certain things you won't know until you engage with the other side. In other words, negotiation is a dynamic, interactive process," Wheeler says. Whatever questions, offers, or threats you make are also signals that potentially affect the other party's perceptions and behavior—and not always in the way that you expect or intend. "Negotiation," he says, "entails ongoing learning, adapting, and influencing—all of which take place in a strategic environment."
Meanwhile, as you're trying to gain a better sense of the situation, your counterpart is also reading or misreading you. As one manager told Wheeler, "It sometimes feels like I'm dancing on a tabletop in the pitch dark."
To take into account that chaos and uncertainty, Wheeler has incorporated concepts and techniques from other arenas where circumstances are in flux and information is imperfect—from military combat and medical diagnosis to improvisational theater and jazz.
Hitting The Right Notes
"There are things that great jazz musicians understand that apply directly to negotiations," says Wheeler, whose own background is in law and policy analysis. "I'm not speaking metaphorically. By emulating what jazz masters do, we all can become better negotiators."
Indeed, the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke—who brokered the Dayton Accords ending the conflict in the former Yugoslavia—explicitly likened negotiation to jazz. "It's improvisation on a theme," he observed. "You know where you want to go, but you don't know how to get there. It's not linear." The great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis made the same connection. "The real power 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."
Wheeler marvels at how jazz greats "pay heed," as he puts it. "They listen deeply to other players, suspending judgment, at least for the moment, not worrying what they are going to express when their turn comes." During those times, the supporting musician "comps"—or complements—the soloist's tune, a concept Wheeler finds equally applicable to negotiation. "When the other person is speaking, you still need to sound the notes that coax them in the right direction. That means listening for some nugget, some idea that they put forth, that you can shape in a way that advances your mutual interests."
Similarly, the great negotiators—people like George Mitchell, who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, or Lakhdar Brahimi, who negotiates conflicts for the UN in some of the world's hottest trouble spots—are successful because they go into a situation with a complete presence of mind, responding to and working with whatever is presenting itself in the moment rather than trying to bend it to some predetermined outcome.
"Keep an open mind and be ready to change and adapt to the situation," Brahimi advised. "Don't ask reality to conform to your blueprint, but transform your blueprint to adapt to reality."
The biggest barrier to developing that mindfulness is something that is almost never talked about in classes or books about negotiation: our own emotions. "Even very successful people carry a great degree of anxiety with them to the negotiating table," Wheeler says, "and that anxiety is an obstacle to effective performance."
Research that he and psychologist Dr. Kimberlyn Leary have conducted shows that much of the discomfort that people feel about negotiation stems from its inevitable uncertainty—and the realization that success is never wholly in our hands.
That uncertainty and lack of control often breeds insecurity, defensiveness, and even hostility. "People worry about whether they are being too trusting or too suspicious," says Wheeler. "Even after making a good deal, people wonder if they could have done better." Such self-doubt is a costly distraction. "It gets in the way of constructive engagement and relationship-building."
Staying In The Game
Being centered emotionally is essential to negotiation success. Wheeler says it requires being comfortable with seemingly contradictory feelings—for example, being simultaneously calm and alert—and approaching negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery about the situation, your counterpart, and perhaps even yourself.
In his book Wheeler quotes Tom Green, a remarkable negotiator who helped reach a $350 billion settlement of health claims with the tobacco industry. Discussing his experience in Wheeler's MBA class, Green said the secret of his success was "making chaos my friend in negotiation."
Whether involving international diplomacy, national policy, or just neighborhood real estate, all negotiations are chaotic in that they are fluid and not wholly predictable. Successful negotiators embrace that reality, so when conditions change—and they will—their agility allows them to sidestep pitfalls and seize opportunity.