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Improvisational Negotiation: Moving Away from Conventional Wisdom

From the First Mediation Blog of Jeff Krivis and Mariam Zadeh.

Improvisational Negotiation represents a particular mind-set and approach to negotiation that is flexible and adaptable to a fluid set of circumstances.  In the Improvisational Negotiation realm, there are no steadfast rules, grids, or specific definitions that must be adhered to. Rather, the success of this technique stems from the willingness to replace the traditional “one size fits all” textbook approach with a style that focuses on the moment and is based on creativity, acceptance of uncertainty and willingness to take risk.


Improvisation is the act of creating something as it is performed on the spur of the moment. For example, an actor improvising a scene must trust his own instincts to define a character’s response to internal and external stimuli. Although this term is usually used in the context of music and theater, it applies equally well to the negotiation setting where spontaneity and intuition are critical components.  Negotiators find themselves in rapidly changing unpredictable environments where they are required to react and respond to information as it is being presented, hence the need for Improvisational Negotiation.

Mood 4 Jazz by Steven Johnson


Improvisational Negotiation is about working within a structure that allows for spontaneity without being bound by precise formulas or equations. The objective is to steer away from the conventional wisdom that produces a rigid and uniform negotiation methodology. This is not to say that improvising means, “Anything goes.”  Instead, Improvisational Negotiation relies on this structure for developing and mastering skill sets that support the uniqueness of each individual negotiation, its parameters, participants, challenges and objectives.


We teach this philosophy and explore its application to mediation at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law.  Our most recent Improvisational Negotiation class was covered by Greg Katz of the Daily Journal in his article entitled, Through Jazz, Bringing Mediation ‘Fresh to Life’.


For more insight into the structure of improvisation, check out How Free is Jazz?, a fantastic article by Dr. Tony Makarone where he discusses how music ”theory is there to help you when your ears fail. While theory is not there to replace your ears or your heart, it can often help you clarify some “counter-intuitive” musical approaches.” Similarly, conventional wisdom in the negotiation context is there to help when one’s instinct and intuition leads us astray. Relying on negotiation theory to the extent that it becomes a crutch and a hinderence will only serve to mute the inner music emanating from the gut.  So let the music play!  Join us as we embark on an improvisational journey and if it feels unconventional or counter-intuitive, remember, there’s always conventional wisdom to fall back on.      


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