Imagine the following fictional scenario. Rudolf Wild, a merchandising executive with a Walmart operation in Europe, sits down with a Chinese supplier for contract negotiations. There are difficult issues on the table, including quality problems and logistical arrangements. Wild’s main objective, however, is getting the relatively small Asian supplier to open an existing contract and agree to a large price cut for the delivery of promotional items for an upcoming World Cup. If all goes well, Wild hopes to be promoted to global director of sports marketing. And he is confident that he can get the job done because he is prepared and represents an influential company. But being prepared for an anticipated conversation isn’t always enough when it comes to negotiation. When the Chinese negotiator casually mentions his production company has just won marketing rights to the Beijing Olympics and is seeking retail partners, Wild fails to see opportunity. “That’s nice,” he says. “But can we please get back to discussing payment terms on our current invoices?”
This scenario, which we use in business negotiation seminars, illustrates a central challenge facing negotiators: how to quickly and skillfully process new information. Negotiation is a conversation of gradual and tactical revelation, offers, feints, demands and interpretations. As a result, it pays to be both prepared and prepared to listen. But while we teach that systematic preparation is a key factor for success, experience shows negotiators often become ensnared in their own planning.
A facility for empathy is critical for successful negotiators. Under the philosophy of negotiation that we teach, the way to create value for all begins with understanding the interests of the other side. The problem is that negotiation partners do not always tell us what they really want. Real interests may be unclear or submerged in the form of hidden agendas. And so people get stuck arguing about things that don’t really matter, never seeing common interests that offer rich value creation potential. Totally focused on their own agenda, they do not even hear vital new information that might further their own interests.
To address this issue, this article proposes viewing negotiation as a paradox: structured spontaneity. This requires seeing the synergies that exist between state-of-the-art thinking on improv, and related games and exercises, with the Harvard approach to negotiation, which usually puts emphasis on strategic preparation rather than flexible response. Simply put, we link Harvard’s structural “iceberg” with a new model that incorporates empirical work from cultural and social psychology and goes deeper than the Harvard model. This allows for a better understanding of negotiation practice as something that is both layered, like an iceberg, and intuitional, like an improvised game.
Three fundamental levels of awareness exist in every negotiation:
- POSITIONS: The tip of the iceberg represents what the other side tells you it wants. It is usually couched in terms of a closed demand to be accepted or rejected. It is often quantified and is always quite specific. It may even come couched in contract language.
- INTERESTS: As taught by Fisher and Ury, authors of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, there are hidden motivations underlying the stated positions. These interests are more personal, less clear and often illogical. As the deeper and more inchoate sea of drivers under negotiation demands, they are not always admirable. But they are always present.
- PERCEPTIONS: Here we go deeper than Getting to Yes, maintaining that perceptions are also grounded in the values, needs, prejudices, emotions and fears of the individual. They are subjective and not easily accessible to others. And it is here that we must start, not by making concessions, but by understanding how our partner sees the world.
This approach is easy to understand, at least on a cognitive level. The challenge is applying it. When emotions are provoked, many negotiators quickly revert to arguing about positions and truth, despite knowing they need to understand interests and perceptions on the other side. The path to a win-win outcome can be found by approaching the structural iceberg model via the behavioural theory of improvisation.
Improvisation is essentially the art of flexibly watching. Its essential axiom is “yes, and…” This principle is often made into a game. Party A puts forth an idea, which is accepted by Party B, who acknowledges the idea with a simple “yes.” There is no expression of either approval or criticism. Party B then adds the improvisational advance, or the “and,” building on Party A’s idea and enriching it. To gain better awareness of opposition interests, good negotiators have learned to look for non-verbal cues using improv skills. This generates a newfound perceptiveness and flexibility that enables far more creative problem-solving and bargaining, and thus helps to bring about the vaunted win-win result.
Like the negotiation iceberg, the improvisational iceberg has three levels: Head, Heart and Core.
- HEAD: This is where discovery of the other side’s position takes place. In comedy, this is how we begin a scene or set up a joke. In negotiation, the lead improviser is charged with reading the other side, observing their verbal and non-verbal responses to offers, drawing smart conclusions and preparing appropriate counter-offers.
- HEART: Here we invite connections between interests and keep minds open about needs on the other side. On stage, this is how improvised characters might discover a phobia or establish status. In negotiation, it is about getting at abstract needs.
- CORE: This constitutes our bottom-line on life, work and our place in the world. This also extends to our values and attitudes towards people we love or hate, fear or desire. On stage, this is what constitutes a performer’s style, credo, aesthetic and ethos. In negotiation, it constitutes business philosophy, corporate culture and ethical values.
Unlike the head and heart, core is bedrock and not especially mutable. Nevertheless, improvisation allows people to reveal themselves in interesting and unexpected ways. Indeed, improvisational games are like a dinner guest who opens the wrong cabinet, forcing everyone at the table to wonder what could be inside.
Training ourselves to reach full improvisational sensitivity makes achieving the best outcome more likely. But chances for success improve even more if we extend the iceberg metaphor further and allow more fluid improvisational dynamics to emerge. Like the real deal, our icebergs are deeply affected by environmental factors. Macro external factors, for example, can influence the direction of negotiation much the same way that deep currents move icebergs. Tension and temperature are micro influencers that can heat up or cool down negotiations like surface conditions in the ocean alter the characteristics of floating ice. Political and market factors can also influence the course of negotiation like prevailing winds.
All of these factors come into play as the improvisational negotiator consults Head-Heart-Core to respond effectively to the Positions-Interests-Perceptions of the other party. The trick is learning to go beyond the cognitive in response. Icebergs, water and weather are forces that are difficult to address in a rational way. The key lies in relearning to play.
Improvisers are always improvising, curiously gathering information for further play. So let’s imagine how a newly trained Rudolf Wild might act differently in our case study example. Empowered as an improvisational negotiator, he listens carefully as the Chinese vendor mentions winning the Olympic marketing rights. Wild sees a shift in the prevailing winds, one which gives new insights into his counterpart’s deeper Interests, no matter what Position has been articulated. The surface tension changes, especially if Wild also noticed the glint of pride in the Chinese negotiator’s eye, or the altered tone of voice, or the new energy that this topic brings to the conversation. Instead of an unimaginative “that’s nice,” Wild consciously chooses a “yes, and” response, re-framing the negotiation from a technical discussion about operational difficulties on the current deal to a conversation about a much larger strategic opportunity for both.
A Wild who truly improvises with his Core, and genuinely empathizes with the Chinese negotiator’s revealed personal career ambitions, national pride, and perhaps even greed, will realize that he now has a powerful new card to play. For his Chinese partner has just revealed a strong personal and professional interest and need, thereby offering direct access to his Heart and his Core. It’s there to be played with, respected, exploited, flattered, built-upon, empathized with. Wild must now make another conscious decision: whether to reveal his own core interests, especially his personal ambitions, thereby risking exploitation on his side as well. If he dares, common ground represented by the Olympics comes clearly into view, thus enabling a potentially larger win-win result.
How do you train people to think this way in collaborative conversations? The answer is improvisation training, which involves games that require active listening. The most basic variation is the “yes-and” story. In switch games, actors play out improvised scenarios and swap roles in midstream, a powerful way to train empathy. Physical mirroring exercises hone observation skills and flexibility. In wordless negotiation, participants are asked to try to get what they want without using language, which teaches that communication does not depend on words. Status gaming teaches specific ways of addressing the power dynamics of any interaction. They help us understand that power and status are always part of the equation, and always affect the way in which we send, receive and use information. Monologues, meanwhile, allow us to go deeper into the Core via one-sided negotiations with no counterparty, which is a great way to map the deeper reaches of the submerged mass of the iceberg because it brings to the surface the deeper motivations and fears that are often in play.
There is no truth to negotiation. It is not a debate. As a result, improv training for negotiators is about the tension that exists between strategic preparation and the willingness to follow the other side in a new direction at short notice. It is about being clear on what we want and flexible on how to get it. You create the goal, but you must work with the other side to draw the map to success. And to do that, negotiators must access the inchoate values, needs, prejudices, emotions and fears brought to the table by the other side.
Improv games and role playing offer a versatile set of approaches to access the Head, Heart and Core that make up our parallel icebergs. That practice is enriched by exploring fluid and dynamic factors surrounding negotiation—the deep currents of wider macro-economic issues, the surface tension of the bargaining process itself and the prevailing winds of changeable externalities. From the intersection of these two icebergs, new insights emerge for both disciplines. As they come together, we see the beauty of crystalline transparency and learn to respect the depth of unfamiliar waters. Perhaps we can even sink the Titanic of conventional thinking in negotiations.