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Improv and Negotiation

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Recently, I read an article posted on the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation’s website discussing the similarity of improvisation and negotiation. (Improv pp.4-8.) In both, one must be quick on her feet- ready for anything at any moment. In both, one must be ready “… to seize unexpected opportunities and respond swiftly to sudden threats.” (Id. at 4.) The good negotiator, like the good improv actor, must be acutely attuned to the situation at hand, realizing quickly if she has overstepped her bounds and how to respond appropriately about it, including an apology when necessary. (Id.)

The article provides three basic rules of improv, which to some extent, apply to negotiation. The first is to always respond positively; “Say, yes, and…..” Accept what the other person has said positively and build on it, rather than negating it and her. For example:

“…Suppose a contractor interested in remodeling your office suite floats this proposal: 1) a floor plan that’s tricky to implement but perfectly suited to your team’s needs; 2) a price quote that’s slightly higher than you’d like; 3) a completion in 10 months rather than your desired six-month time frame. If you’re not careful, you might immediately rattle off all the reasons why the third item is unworkable.

Before yielding to that negative impulse, consider where a “yes, and…” approach could take you. You might say, “I appreciate your willingness to accommodate our floor plan, which allows us to reciprocate on price. Now let’s figure out how to meet your need for extra time without causing us big headaches”….. (Id. at 5.)

In sum, use the “glass is half full” approach rather than the “glass is half empty” approach. (Id.)

The second rule- which must be modified for negotiation is to “Don’t ask questions.” In improv, the second and succeeding player must go with the scene as set up by the first and previous player and so for them to ask questions impedes the improv. It stops the action and disengages the audience very quickly. ( Id. at 6-7.)

In negotiations, asking directed questions (as though cross-examining) can have the same effect; it can put the other person on the defensive and thus not amenable to negotiating. Thus, this second rule should be modified to one that both limits the questions and keeps them very open ended and broad based so that the recipient is not offended or put off by the inquiry. One example would be,” What do we need to do to create more value?” (Id.) Such a broad question helps to explore the party’s needs and interests without attacking her.

The third rule, which again requires modification, is “maintain eye contact.” (Id. at 7-8.) In improv, eye contact is essential among the players so that they can stay engaged in the performance. Studies have shown that the majority of our communication is through body language, and not verbally, so that to follow along, one MUST watch the other. If one relies on verbal cues alone, one will miss out on over 90% of what is going on!

But, in many cultures, eye contact is frowned upon. Thus, in negotiations, culture must be taken into consideration and eye contact avoided where appropriate.

In the end, listening is crucial. Negotiators like improv players must be deeply engaged and thus paying absolute undivided attention to what is going on. Without such listening skills, in either situation, the player/negotiator will miss quite a lot. (Id.)

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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