Excerpt: ‘The Art of Negotiation’

Great jazz musicians are a model for negotiators, says Michael Wheeler in his new book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. Creativity at the bargaining table starts with disruption of familiar routines and old assumptions.

The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic Worldbook excerpt

The Swing Of Things

From Chapter 6, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World

By Michael Wheeler

Paying heed is one aspect of improvising. Comping is another. Being provocative is a third. When Ambassador Holbrooke negotiated, he sometimes seemed more like Muhammad Ali than a typical diplomat. "He's yakking and talking. He's jiving," marveled a colleague. Though he added: "The first time you see it, you think it's just bull." In fact, it was Holbrooke's way of pumping himself up and energizing the negotiation process.

Great jazz musicians stir up things as well. Familiar routines and old assumptions have to be disrupted, even though doing so entails risk. Otherwise nothing new can be created. Frank Barrett calls this trait "provocative competence." It tops his list of key principles in improvisation.

Frank uses the word provocative in the positive sense of a willingness to abandon the status quo and venture into the unknown, at least partway. For a negotiator, that could be voicing a novel idea or being more (or less) confrontational than usual. Beyond experimenting, it is a way of taking the initiative. Saxophonist John Coltrane said that he deliberately played songs in difficult and unfamiliar keys because it "made me think" instead of just having his fingers play the notes automatically.

Provocation can be aimed at others as well. Clarinetist Benny Goodman's famed Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 began with a dull rendition of "Don't Be That Way." His band was uptight playing in that historic venue before a society audience dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. Goodman himself was unable to get his musicians to swing, but drummer Gene Krupa galvanized them with a drum solo so wild that jazz critic Phil Schaap calls it "nearly cacophonous." Krupa hit every part of his kit as hard and as fast as he could, "not trying to wake up the crowd," says Schaap, but "trying to wake up the band. He's trying to relax them or scare them beyond their fear."

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Fear of mistakes is a great inhibitor in negotiation. It freezes us and makes us brittle. If we fixate on all that could go wrong, it's hard to imagine how things could go right. Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, connects reluctance to experiment to "fear of being thought a fool (loss of reputation) and fear of actually being a fool (fear of unusual state of mind)." Fear throws us off balance, not just emotionally but physically. Our muscles tighten and our vision narrows. As Nachmanovitch observes, this literally cramps our style. "If I 'try' to play, I fail; if I force the play, I crush it; if I race, I trip. Anytime I stiffen or brace myself against some error or problem, the very act of bracing would cause the problem to occur."

The answer in both jazz and negotiation is venturing out into unfamiliar waters far enough to be energized and creative, but not so far that you are in over your head. Ed Sarath, former head of the jazz department at the University of Michigan, says that the trick for musicians is to be 80 percent in their comfort zone, 20 percent outside of it. A player who is completely comfortable just recycles past performances.

"I don't like a comfortable person," Miles Davis once said. "I can't be around them if they're just…you know. Nothing bounces off them. You get nothing." Davis himself was notorious for making his fellow players uncomfortable. He actually barred his musicians from practicing together, to keep the group vibrant when it finally got together. The signature cut "So What" from his classic 1959 album Kind of Blue was created on the spot and is played in the D-Dorian mode, something the group had never heard of until Davis explained it moments before the recording tape started to roll. Working in that strange mode was scary, but it forced everyone to abandon old conventions and in their place jointly create the bestselling jazz album of all time.

Sarath's 80-20 rule is a good standard for negotiators too. You need the 80 percent so that you can move forward and dampen fears about making irreversible mistakes. But the 20 percent discomfort is just as important. It inoculates you against complacence and heightens your senses so that you're alert for both danger and opportunities….

You will get stuck sometimes. You may lose your train of thought or not have the perfect answer to a tough question. That's bound to happen when you operate on the edge. Trumpeter Tommy Turrentine said that when you're doing a solo and you lose focus, "You better have something to play when you can't think of nothing new, or you'll feel funny laying out all the time." Jazz musicians stockpile familar licks they can fall back on until inspiration kicks back in.

Likewise, as a negotiator, you can minimize the impact of freezing up by having a few stock moves on hand that will buy you time to regain your footing. Shift the conversation to process and treat whatever just occurred as a mutual problem. "Maybe it's just me," you might say, "but it feels as if we're getting lost in the weeds. Let's recap what we've agreed upon so we can put this particular issue in context." You can also build your confidence by seeking out ideas and techniques beyond your usual experience. If you run a supply chain, for example, read the sports pages to see how pro teams try to balance their payrolls as they negotiate with superstars and journeymen. Or if you're in sports, pay attention to the foreign news and watch how diplomats forge alliances.

Look especially for examples of other people using provocative competence to stir things up. You seldom want to be provocative in the inflammatory sense, but sometimes you have to shock other parties to get their attention. Donald Dell tells about how in the 1970s he tried to dissuade high school basketball star Moses Malone from signing a multimillion-dollar contract to play in the American Basketball Association. At that point, the teenager was the shyest person Dell had ever met. "Almost seven feet tall and all kneecaps and elbows, he couldn't bring himself to look at me."

Dell was getting nowhere trying to explain the unfairness of the contract clause that gave the pro team a perpetual option to extend the deal. Malone was so nervous that he wasn't hearing a word. Dell realized that he had to say something else. "I stopped midsentence, paused for a moment, and then said, 'Moses, have you ever heard of slavery?' His head shot up immediately, and he stared at me intently. 'Because,' I said, 'if you sign this contract, that's like virtual slavery. It could be for the next sixteen years of your life, and I've never seen a contract like this one.'"

It was a risky move, but Malone got the point and was saved from signing a deal that would have cost him tens of millions of dollars over his career.

Excerpted from The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. Copyright (c) 2013 by Michael Wheeler. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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