Improvisation and Negotiation: Expecting the Unexpected



Negotiators must improvise. As the negotiations process unfolds, they work with new information, continually making decisions along the way to achieve favorable results. Skilled improvisational jazz musicians and actors perform in similar ways: they repeatedly practice song chord progressions and notes or scene guidelines before a performance; then, during the performance, they work with the information or the music they hear in order to react and respond, making decisions along the way to produce dazzling music or a compelling scene. In this article, two experts in negotiation, a jazz-improvisation scholar, a former member of an improvisational theater troupe, and a psychotherapist versed in therapeutic improvisational techniques explore the improvisational nature of negotiation.

Several aspects of negotiation are similar to improvisation. Both negotiators and improvisational performers need to have a similar mind-set to be successful, both need to recognize and/or change that mind-set at times, and both must craft creative solutions. But there are some significant differences between improvisational performance and negotiation practice, which this article also notes. For example, personal charisma (“star quality”) is a common attribute of successful performers, but not something negotiators may always rely on. Similarly, improvisational artists usually work as a team, while a negotiator is often on his or her own. Nonetheless, the incorporation of improvisation techniques into the negotiation skills repertoire holds great promise for practicing negotiators and is a worthy topic of future negotiation research and teaching.

Introduction: Preparation and Mindfulness

Negotiation is a fascinating subject in part because the process is so often unpredictable. External events outside the control of the parties — unexpected outbursts, accidentally pressing someone's “emotional hot button,” learning critical new facts about the issues being negotiated — can intrude at any time. A negotiator who learns to react effectively in unpredictable moments clearly is an improviser. He or she somehow manages to cope regardless of the people, the problem, or the process in place. We have known people who have this gift. But how do these virtuoso performers do it?

In exploring the improvisational nature of negotiation, we posed some initial questions to frame our discussion. Specifically, when do negotiators improvise? What can negotiators learn from professional improvisers in the arts? Last, but certainly not least, what are the challenges inherent in applying improvisational skill sets to negotiation theory and practice?

To address the first question, we focused on preparation, one of the cornerstones of standard negotiation theory. Because negotiation is so “in the moment,” parties often fear that they cannot adequately prepare for it. It sometimes seems to the negotiator that he or she can only react to the other side and attempt to “go with the flow.” But negotiation experts contend that the “wait-and-see” approach is ineffectual if one's goal is to identify areas of joint concern in order to create value and enlarge the pie. In Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People, Richard G. Shell notes that “nearly every research study on negotiation has confirmed its [preparation’s] importance” (Shell 1999: 15). Other popular negotiation texts likewise tout systematic preparation as an essential skill of a successful negotiator. For example, in Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes, Robert Mnookin and his colleagues write, “We cannot overestimate the importance of preparation — the cornerstone of successful negotiation” (Mnookin, Peppet, and Tulumello 2000: 28). (See also Fisher and Ertel 1995.)

Another cornerstone of negotiation theory is that a negotiator must consider the needs, interests, and concerns of the other side. Proper preparation requires weighing everyone's alternatives away from the table and identifying their best (and worst) alternative to a negotiated agreement (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1991; Menkel-Meadow 2001). Negotiation theorists encourage negotiators to prepare by brainstorming options to create mutual gains (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1991).

In spite of preparation's obvious virtues, theorists express doubts about whether the negotiation process should or can be scripted. The dynamic and interactive nature of negotiation would seem to doom rigid plans to failure. Negotiation, by its very nature, calls for the involved actors to construct the interaction jointly, making sense of the negotiation as it evolves (McGinn and Keros 2002). Negotiators improvise — it is unavoidable. They work with the unpredicable and deal with the unexpected.

But this imperative challenges conventional theory. While experts prescribe actions and responses to common situations that arise in negotiations (Goffman 1981; Kolb and Williams 2003; Stone, Heen, and Patton 1999), it is impossible to anticipate every possible move in a negotiation. Furthermore, negotiators must first learn to recognize or “size up” the situation they are in at the moment before they will be able to apply the correct recommended action.

In the arts, professionals learn to improvise, not by trying to foresee everything that could conceivably happen, rather by accepting whatever transpires and working with it (Berliner 1995; Close 1982; Spolin 1963). They cultivate an understanding that helps them work from the unknown with comfort and ease. Rather than preparing for various specific potential outcomes, improvisers train to work with any situation that arises. Professional improvisers learn to be comfortable with the unexpected without learning prescriptive formulas. This distinction is important. While some negotiation literature describes specific ways to prepare, it typically fails to describe how a negotiator can learn to proceed through the improvisational process of a negotation. Exploring the skills of artists and therapists who improvise professionally thus offers insights to negotiators who also seek to comfortably and confidently navigate the unpredictable twists and turns of a negotiation.

In improvisational theater, actors learn to use all the information that is presented. They learn to be mindful of what occurs around them and interpret words, actions and emotions. They then add information so the scene can progress. The actors must use active listening and heightened awareness to respond to verbal and nonverbal cues. The best improvisers engage fully with everything that occurs around them — both on stage and in the audience.

Similarly, jazz musicians learn to listen to cues that their fellow musicians transmit. If they do not listen to one another and watch each other carefully, they will play over each other and the resulting performance will be disjointed. Improvisational musicians and actors must develop keen awareness or “mindfulness” in order to perform at all.

Scholars have begun to consider the role that this type of “mindfulness” or self-awareness plays in negotiation. Meditation, visualization, hypnosis, and other techniques are all being explored as vehicles for develping mindfulness in negotiation, which in turn, may have an impact on negotiation success. According to Fisher and Shapiro (2005) a truly mindful negotiator is both self-aware and attached to the emotions of others (Fisher and Shapiro 2005). Much like an improvisational performer, a negotiator should be aware of, on a deeper level, what is happening around him or her, what might be occurring with the other party, and how this might look to an observer.

The Improvisational Orientation

The ability to be deeply aware is at the heart of an improvisational orientation. Effective negotiators learn how to “play off” of what the other party has said and done. In doing so, they demonstrate that they have not only heard what the other party has said, but that they have also reflected on that information. In an improvisational theater, actors acknowledge and supplement each other's statements by saying “Yes, and,” a technique similar to that recommended by Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton in Difficult Conversations (1999).

The authors refer to this approach as the “And Stance.” They maintain that adopting the And Stance helps negotiators connect to the opposing party differently than if they were to resort to the more adversarial, instinctive response of “No, but.” As the authors note, this may go beyond mere politeness by encouraging a fundamental shift in perspective. “The And Stance gives you a place from which to assert the full strength of your views and feelings without having to diminish the views and feelings of someone else” (Stone, Heen, and Patton 1999: 40). The And Stance is not a strategy, per se, but it does provide a way to reorient the relationship of the parties. In this respect, it is an “echo improvisation” in the arts. When performers think “Yes, and,” it helps them be reflective in the moment — to develop an improvisational mind-set by working with whatever information others have given them.

An improvisational mind-set is similar to the notion of mindfulness discussed earlier, which utilizes an ancient Eastern method of deliberate, moment-to-moment attention through meditation (Riskin 2002). Improvisational artists pay careful attention to the moment by listening carefully to notes and words and watching for body-language cues from their counterparts. For negotiators, this method of listening carefully and empathetically is derived from the “active listening” suggested long ago by the psychologist Carl Rogers (1961).

Developing awareness and the ability to respond appropriately fosters spontaneity. In negotiation, that requires freeing oneself from one's conditioned-behavior patterns in order to encourage value creation. Conditioned patterns, stock answers, and communication rituals are the antitheses of spontaneity.

Some negotiators seem to have a particular knack for getting “unstuck” from such conditional patterns or other difficult moments that tend to hinder progress during a negotiation. Confronted with a tense situation, they have the psychological acuity to know when to step back and address those tensions. That kind of negotiator might say, “There is a lot of emotion in the room right now. I know because I feel frustrated. Maybe we should just talk about that for five minutes.” After the group discusses its frustrations, the conversation may move to something completely different. That experience may also make it easier to raise other concerns, including emotional issues, more authentically and calmly. If so, tensions may be reduced and stalemate defused. Such an intervention can be difficult, of course; it requires both self-awareness and a willingness to take a risk. It also requires that the negotiator break out of his or her conditioned negotiating pattern, those familiar behaviors and mind-sets that may be comfortable and difficult to abandon. Professional improvisational performers likewise strive to break free of conditioned patterns and behaviors (Berliner 1995). Patterns in jazz or improvisational comedy signal repetitiveness and a lack of creativity that audiences do not appreciate.

When performing, improvisers do have roles and responsibilities. In a jazz trio, for example, there might be a trumpet, drums, and a piano. Each must listen to each other and contribute his or her part — soloing, accompanying, or both — in a way that complements the other members of the trio. If the trumpet decides to take the melody, for example, the others accept this move and fall back into playing accompaniment (Barrett 1998). Each performer is bound by some limitations, such as those imposed by a particular song, or in the case of improvisational comedy, by the theatrical scene structure and the space limitations of the stage/theater. Similarly, within a negotiation there are often unspoken a priori constraints or limits. Parties at the negotiation table have defined roles and sometimes even scripts, such as when they work from “term sheets” or boilerplate forms in transactional negotiations. A script of any form can thus inhibit improvisation even before the negotiation begins.

One constraint in negotiation arises from the attitudes (or mind-sets) of the parties (Menkel-Meadow 1984). Mind-sets are difficult to change and can be difficult to address within the context of a negotiation. Changing the process to encourage an improvisational mind-set can elevate the dialogue to produce more creative outcomes because more issues and interests are opened up for discussion and problem solving.

Psychologists likewise must first develop an understanding of their patients’ mind-sets before they can work to change destructive ones. They try to tap into the patients’ unspoken constraints to create real dialogue and move the conversation forward (Ringstrom 2001). Therapists learn to utilize improvisation in these key moments. The therapist utilizes improvisational techniques to further the conversation. Such techniques include saying “Yes, and” as well as paying careful attention to the patient's words and body language. By improvising along the way, a psychologist hopes to better understand, tap into, and potentially change the nature of the a priori constraints of a patient's personality.

The Dangers of Stardom

An improvisational artist seeks to develop his or her own distinctive style or signature. Despite the emphasis on teamwork, jazz musicians place a premium on evolving a distinctly individual “voice.” Similarly, while improvisational comedy troupes work very much in teams, the performers are competitive — each wants to get the “biggest laugh,” to get noticed, develop a following, and land roles on television and in film. Applause is its own reward, but beyond that it helps propel an individual's career. The best jazz and theater improvisers utilize improvisational structures as vehicles of self-promotion. They develop their own expertise and style and are then recognized and rewarded for it.

This aspect of improvisation becomes problematic when we think of applying it to negotiation. There are indeed some negotiating “stars” whose success seems to derive from their personalities as much as their technical skills (Loewenstein, Thompson, and Bazerman 1989). We argue that star quality can get in the way, however, when the goal is to produce a fair, mutually satisfactory, and lasting agreement between parties. A powerful personality may persuade parties to make a less than satisfactory agreement that they may regret. Relationships may then sour and deals may fall apart after the negotiation ends. The negotiator is thus advised to beware of becoming too much of a star.

Further, negotiators often achieve a charismatic reputation from their past performances. The abilities of a star negotiator — like Miles Davis's musical genius — cannot be taught, but certain social skills can be. The introductory negotiation course at the Harvard Law School includes an Interpersonal Skills Exercise in which students explore “being someone else” (e.g., a negotiator whom they admire). When students act “in character,” their skills improve, according to their instructors. The exercise gives students opportunities to explore a personality trait that they may not currently have but want to develop. Likewise, a course on leadership at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management draws on the principles of improvisation to develop communication and management skills. The students first learn improvisation techniques (saying “Yes, and” or agreeing, listening carefully, and adding relevant information) through a series of theater exercises. They then apply these improvisational techniques in role-plays of various leadership situations. By following seemingly obvious improvisational techniques, the students find that they become more comfortable relating with others as well as presenting to an audience in a more compelling way. Similarly, by learning to connect with other parties and clients on an interpersonal level, negotiators may find themselves becoming more creative problem solvers (Schneider 2002).

The Role of Teamwork

The role of teamwork in improvisational arts is different, at least on the surface, than in negotiation practice. Jazz and improvisational comedy are typically ensemble work. Members of a jazz ensemble, for example, create something that no one of them could produce individually. Likewise, in improvisational theater, the actors help one another to “cocreate” a scene. In both settings, the artists pick up on each other's cues and continue the scene based on each other's information.

The negotiation context can be quite different. Sometimes, it can be a combative, competitive environment, where one side's triumph means the other's defeat. In other instances, compromise forces both parties to give up something. This need not always be the case, of course, as Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 1991) and other books have persuasively maintained. Even when the parties generate mutual gain, however, each still has his or her individual preferences and aspirations. While it may be in their enlightened self-interest to collaborate, they may not see themselves as being on “the same team” (Berger, Kern, and Thompson 2003).

Nevertheless, the elements of teamwork may come into play. This is certainly true in multiparty negotiations where different constituencies must try to function as teams. Within these groups, basic improvisational skills, such as recognizing a teammate's offer of information or selecting different roles to play within the negotiation, can be critical.

In overtly competitive situations, improvisation may be more of an individual process, particularly if one of the parties lacks the skill or inclination to play. Even so, an effective improviser can still make the best of those situations by creatively adapting to the other person's behavior. Sometimes, improvisation skills can help a weaker party turn the tables and reframe the negotiation process. Deborah Kolb and Judith Williams (2003) make exactly this point in showing how moves and turns can redirect the focus onto the relevant issue rather than on accruing power. They describe situations where two parties are ostensibly equal, but one tries to gain the upper hand through intimidation. A negotiator who is a deft improviser may deflect the intimidation and ideally encourage the other party to improvise as well. One person's improvisational attitude and techniques may help everyone respond more effectively and ultimately to craft more creative outcomes. Generating a team attitude when there are no defined leaders or teams is both a challenge and an opportunity for negotiators.


In one of Molière's plays, a character proclaims, “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it” (Molière 1670). So it is with negotiators and improvisation. While negotiation literature seldom acknowledges the improvisational nature of the process, the simple fact is that few deals would be made or disputes would be resolved if negotiators were limited to prepared scripts.

To say that negotiators improvise, however, is not to say that they always do it well. The fields of jazz, theater, and psychotherapy have given much more explicit attention to the skills, habits of the mind, and social context that foster effective improvisation. Although negotiation is different from each of those domains in certain respects, they offer valuable lessons for negotiation theory and practice. Some of this knowledge relates to behavior: what it takes to develop confidence and the ability to “think on our feet.” At a more fundamental level, acknowledging the role of improvisation may be a healthy challenge to conventional negotiation theory. We must acknowledge that negotiation is a dynamic and an uncertain process, one that defies rigid planning. We, thus, need to build a theory that is both rigorous and flexible and that reflects the reality that people learn and adapt as events unfold.