Q&A: Michael Wheeler, author of ‘The Art of Negotiation, on the importance of improvising


In his new book, ‘The Art of Negotiation,’ author Michael Wheeler discusses the importance of adaptability. (Courtesy of Michael Wheeler)
February 14

Killer instinct, it turns out, is not the only — or even the prime — virtue of a skilled negotiator. Adaptability is important. A tolerance for uncertainty is, too. And an appreciation for the spooky art of jazz musicians helps. All, according to Michael Wheeler, are useful in crafting strategies for dynamic negotiations. He’s written a book on the subject and talked with The Washington Post about the power and potential of any negotiation — whether a job is at stake or the plans for a multimillion-dollar real estate development. The following was edited for length and clarity.

Q Tell me about the process of writing this book.

It’s long in the making. I’ve taught negotiation for many years, most recently at Harvard Business School. For many years I’ve been trying to figure out what negotiation dynamics are all about. So I had this bug in my head that it’s all well and good in terms of decision trees and probabilities and so forth, but the fact of the matter is everyday transactions cannot be scripted or even necessarily predicted. It’s an exploratory process. I’ve looked to other fields — I’m not a musician myself, but the jazz greats are able to improvise in real time. And in military strategy, they say all plans go out the window at first contact with the enemy, so the military’s thought about it a lot. And some of the principles from those realms fit perfectly with negotiation.

So the book draws from your experience.

Yes. As a Harvard Business School professor I write cases with my colleagues. And time and time again I would see examples of people setting up to do A, and they end up not doing B, C or D. But they do E. And that becomes a story. If you peek underneath it you can figure out, what did they do well and how were they able to be flexible? How do you judge success if you were originally going for A and you end up at E? So all those questions were lurking. And I developed cases, did some lab work, experimental work that drew on the experimental work of others. All of that came into my teaching. Writing notes as well as cases. And this is the synthesis of all of those elements.

I think people hear “negotiation” and think “Wall Street hotshot dealmakers,” or perhaps in Washington they think about lawmaking and that process. But most people consider a new job at some point or maybe buy a house — both examples you use in the book — and negotiation is clearly a skill for success in everyday life. Why aren’t we better at it?

First and foremost, the bumblebee does fly. Even people who cannot negotiate manage to get things done. Buy a house, say. Whether they buy a house at the best price, whether they represent themselves well as they’re moving up in an organization is another matter. But people do it. There’s no question about that.

The question you ask, I think more precisely, is, why don’t they do it as well as they’d like to? It’s very hard to know how well you’ve done, even after the fact. Maybe you got a lower price than what you’d hoped for, but your aspirations were too low.

Or maybe you don’t come to an agreement at all. What lesson should you take from that? One possibility is it wasn’t possible. The best you could do for the other party wasn’t good enough for them. But it also might have been that you or they overplayed your hand or their hand. It might be that you weren’t inventive enough. It might have been a stressed relationship.

But all you have for data is your side of the story. It’s not like playing tennis with a friend, and afterward you towel off and he gives you some friendly advice about your backhand — more follow-through or something. You don’t get that feedback in negotiations. So I think it is a challenge. And the book gives models of how to think about crafting a strategy that gives you something to riff from, in jazz terms, that doesn’t tie your hands.

I’d always imagined that the key to a successful — or winning, if you will, a negotiation is maintaining control of the conversation. But it turns out that perhaps that’s not true.

I wouldn’t completely scratch that. I’d look for guiding the conversation. But there’s someone on the other side of the table who’s likely just as smart as we are, just as determined, just as bone-headed, has good days and bad days. And they want to control things, too. So this is where I think the lessons from the past masters come in, which is having some sense of what point you want to press, where you want to be listening intently and when you want to speak. I think that people’s anxiety can make them rigid — trying to control everything, trying to rebut every assertion. Where in some instances, you have to think about whether this is the point you want to press. And if it’s important to put the stop sign up, put the stop sign up.

You’ve mentioned jazz ,and the book talks a lot about the ability to improvise. Sometimes we think of negotiation as inherently competitive, but you point out time and again that the success of both parties depends ultimately on how well they collaborate. Can you talk about that?

Yes. A number of things. Not everybody who’s a jazz musician is pals with everybody. There are some famous duos where they play together beautifully and then take separate airplanes, so it isn’t necessarily you have to be friends or even like the person with whom you’re dealing. But you do have to respect the fact that they have an agenda, they have particular needs.

What’s interesting is that the fast friends don’t necessarily do well negotiating. And the reason is, if you and I had known each other forever and you’d proposed doing something, and I could live with it, I like you well enough that I can say, “Okay, that’s fine.” Whereas if we’re more arm’s length and if I know you or are comfortable with you, I can say, ‘If you do that it’s not a big priority for me. And incidentally if you do that I’m going to need some help on some other issues.” In doing that we can actually identify what you’d like but what I really must have and what I’d like, too. But it actually makes more sense to have that second issue. If those priorities are never voiced, we come up with a mediocre deal.

Instead of pretending there’s some ideal environment for negotiation, you seem to account for the actual world, with all its complexity. Can you talk about the value of learning to cope with uncertainty?

It’s a necessity. I challenge anybody to tell me the third thing you’re going to say in the course of negotiation. I do not know until I get a sense of the tone of the person I’m dealing with. Are they nervous? Are they warm and engaging? Are they pressed for time? Fortunately, we’re comfortable with that uncertainty in any normal conversation where nothing is truly at stake. When we’re fixated on getting to a particular point and we’re not sure we’re going to get there, then we tend to tighten up. But you can’t wish away the fact that there’s somebody else on the other side of the table who isn’t going to let you write his or her lines.

Is it ideal that people go into a negotiation with the understanding that they might not be able to fathom the outcome?

This is a really important point. The word “improvise” is key to the book. You go into negotiation with a provisional goal. And the more provisional it is, the more alert you have to be about refining your objectives and also having an exit plan. So you say, “Okay, I’m exploring.”

The first story in the first chapter is about my colleague who was trying to buy a cable television system and who was willing to pay a premium for it because it would have synergies with a system his firm owned. He worked very hard to make that acquisition, but the owner of that second system thought it was worth more than my friend thought it was. A lot of people at that point would just throw in the towel. But my friend thought, “Gee, if they think they’re system is worth that much, how much is ours worth?” Then he became a seller as opposed to buyer.

Now that was not his original intention. But it became a superior option when he discovered what the interests and priorities of his counterpart were.

And I might add, there’s no way you could prepare for that. You need to know the other person’s mind. You need to do as much market research as you can. You want to read the contracts backward and forward. You want to get a scouting report that tells you who you’re dealing with. But some of the things you need to know about the negotiation can only happen in the back-and-forth.

So you’re actually doing a very fast-moving character study of the other party.

And they’re studying you. And they’re possibly misconstruing you. You may be well intended, but whether it’s a matter of temperament or something they say or you say something that’s misinterpreted, that’s not fully in your control.

In reading the book, it seems to me that you’re energized by the prospects for creativity to play a powerful role in negotiation and relationships. Tell us about your focus on creativity.

Let’s talk about creativity in two senses.

There’s creativity in terms of forging a relationship. I tell a story in the book about a [U.S.-Soviet arms-control] summit that took place in Reykjavik in the mid-1980s. And then-Secretary of State George Shultz was there for Ronald Reagan, and one of the Soviet delegates was a guy named Sergei Akhromeyev, a field marshal who was the equivalent to the head of our joint chiefs of staff. They hadn’t expected Akhromeyev to show up at this meeting. So Shultz gets into an informal conversation with him before getting into talks about missile production.

Akhromeyev said, “Mr. Secretary, you have to understand that I’m one of the last of the Mohicans.” And Shultz said, “What do you mean by that?” He answered, “Well, I’m still wearing the uniform, but most of the people who were with me in World War II are either dead or long retired.” And — this is very good jazz listening — Shultz says: “ ‘The Last of the Mohicans’? How do you know about that?” Akhromeyev says, “Oh, when I was young I read all the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.”

So what you see in that short exchange is a deepening of a relationship. And in his memoirs, Shultz describes how from that he was able to ascertain that Akhromeyev was not a robotic diplomat who was just going to toe the party line. And Akhromeyev turned out to play a very important role in those talks.

There’s also creativity in terms of problem solving. Instead of doing a straight-priced deal, there may be ways of financing it. There may be performance incentives. There may be other contingencies built in that are relatively cheap for one party to surrender and are very beneficial to the other. That’s important, too.

And I think to some degree the two are related. For people to open up about their interests, they have to be comfortable about disclosing what their priorities are. They have to have some sense that they’re not going to be exploited. Establishing some kind of working relationship — doesn’t have to be best friends — is often a condition for working out a value-maximizing agreement.

So in the realm of the second aspect of that answer, one of the concepts you write about in the book is expanding the baseline — giving people room to maneuver, which turns out to be collaborative in spirit but also requires flexibility. Talk about that.

You can read books and they talk about “expanding the pie.” And that’s all well and good, but we’re not just a bakery. I want a decent share of that pie, and you do as well.

There are negotiations that are principally about dollars — more for you and fewer for me. In those instances, it’s a tug of war. Seeing something as zero-sum, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s going to mean more for you is less for me, and we behave accordingly.

I like the story about Shultz. And your sense of storytelling makes the book a pleasure to read. You write about the experiences of dealmakers and diplomats and even Hollywood producers. Do you draw on that storytelling skill in negotiations as well?

We give a great-negotiator award, typically every year. A guy who impressed me as much as any is Lakhdar Brahimi — a U.N. diplomat, Algerian by birth. He’s recently been trying to make something happen in Syria. He has the world’s hardest job. Often he’s not successful. But sometimes he is. Sometimes he’s able to stop the bombings for a while. So when we give this award, we spend the day with them — and we spend weeks in advance preparing.

Whenever we would ask an important question, he would say, “Let me tell you a story.” And I’m confident that that was his style as a mediator, as well. And rather than stating something as an abstract principle, he’d give it flesh and bones and heart by situating it in a story. And a magnificent storyteller. That is how we understand things — those narratives. I don’t know about you, but I don’t dream in spreadsheets.

Often the unspoken story is kicking around in our head as we’re negotiating. “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I’m doing well.” Or, “I hope I don’t get ripped off.” In an ideal world, two negotiators construct a story they’re both comfortable with. They can say that they were treated with some respect. That they learned something new. That they found a solution that worked for them.

That’s when people are really negotiating well with others.

The book explores the balancing act between having a clear objective and maintaining a spirit of openness. How does that work?

Yes, I quote toward the end a guy name Gary Klein, who writes about decision making. Firefighters come to a blaze. We don’t have time to make decisions. The theory is that they’re working on pattern recognition. They’re fighting fires differently having been on the force for 40 years than on their first day. I like Klein’s work a lot. He talks about having strong ideas, weakly held.

Mary Parker Follett wrote very wisely about management — way before her time. She had a saying: Don’t hug your blueprints too tightly. She meant you have a plan and it’s something that you’re working from and you have to adapt. Eisenhower said the same thing when he said: “Plans are worthless. Planning is everything.”

I think the real trick is having a clear idea and then being able to kiss it goodbye.

How does a negotiator grapple with what he cannot or doesn’t know?

When you land on D-Day — this is Eisenhower again — you don’t know how it’s going to unfold. You’re testing the enemy lines. You’re seeing if there’s a gap you might pass through. Same with a negotiation. You’re going in with a set of priorities. You’re hopeful there’s progress you could make on several issues. But you’re testing the problem with that same sensibility of what will yield and what will not — as an avenue to agreement. You’re doing reconnaissance in the same way a scout would do on the field.

Are you unusually comfortable with chaos and complexity?

Maybe I tend in that direction. I think it makes life interesting. If everything were predictable — ho-hum!

You talk about luck and skill. Is there a relationship? The more skill you have, the luckier you get?

I think that’s true. It’s also mind-set. It comes back to that question of acceptance and optimism. If you think there isn’t a solution to a problem, you’re right. If you think there is a solution, maybe you’re right. But it means you’re going to look and work for it.

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