Harvard Business School professor and negotiation expert Michael Wheeler gives ample praise to the groundbreaking book on negotiation by Roger Ury, Getting to Yes. He extolls the book for changing the attitude of negotiation from adversarial to what has become known as “win-win” negotiation (although ironically, this specific term is not in the book). And he believes that contrarian books that advocate a more adversarial approach are “forgetting that what goes around comes around.”
However, as Wheeler notes in his new book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, he does have a major concern with Ury’s text that can be summarized simply as: “It’s not that simple.” Wheeler believes that the rules and methodologies of win-win negotiation presented by Ury and scores of others since the publication of the book ignore the complexity and ambiguity of real-life negotiations. Even a core concept such as BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, meaning your walk-away backup) assumes a clarity and rigidity that in truth is hard to find in negotiations. You might have a line drawn at a certain price when you’re buying a house, Wheeler says, but what if you find the perfect house that may be just above the allocated budget. That happened to friends of the authors, who stuck to the plan and let their dream house go. Today they might drive wistfully by that house, only four blocks away from the house they did buy, and wonder, “Did we do the right thing?”
The Art of Improvising
Instead of an inert approach to negotiation, Wheeler argues for a more dynamic — that is, constantly changing — approach that more accurately reflects the fluidity of real-life situations. Specifically, he writes, “effective negotiation demands rapid cycles of learning, adapting and influencing.” Learning means paying attention to changes during the negotiation in such things as the scope of the issues under discussion, the best means for resolving them, and the nature of the relationship between negotiators. While Wheeler acknowledges that such learning may take place in many negotiations, it often happens by happenstance. He advocates, instead, deliberate and active learning — that is, deliberately being tuned outward on what is happening in the negotiation instead of inward on solidifying your position and forming your responses. “Your counterpart may be only in midsentence, but you’re already scripting what to say when she’s done — if you let her get that far,” Wheeler explains. “While you’re busy stifling feelings, weighing options, or interpreting something said earlier, the interaction can run away from you.”
Paying heed, as Wheeler calls the kind of focused attention that “goes well beyond active listening,” is how jazz musicians stay in sync with their fellow musicians. Because they are constantly focused on what the others are doing and not what they are doing, they can easily shift and adapt to someone else’s lead. In negotiation, paying heed “involves turning off one’s inner dialogue and absorbing what is happening in the here and now.”
Anyone who’s listened to a jazz group knows that while the soloist is playing, the other musicians continue to support and enrich the music with their contributions. This is known in jazz as “comping” — accompanying or complementing what the other players are doing. There is an art to comping in music and an equal art, Wheeler writes, in comping during negotiations. “Even while your counterpart is speaking, you should lean into the conversation and shape his or her behavior,” he explains. “The questions that you pose or even a nod of your head can encourage constructive statements and keep the other party from painting himself into a corner.” Skillful comping can be “transformational,” Wheeler writes. “Even if they talk far more than you do, you may guide the conversation by supporting their best ideas and reshaping other ones. In the end, they may feel that you accepted their proposal when you deftly got them to voice much of what you wanted.”
The Art of Negotiation is packed with specific methodologies — the deal triangle that lays out your baseline, your opponent’s baseline and constraints is one potent example — and illustrated with numerous stories. Wheeler has not written a manifesto but a practical toolkit for those looking to master the frustrating ambiguity of real-life negotiations.