Jazz Up Your Skills by Emulating Musicians

By Marty Latz, Latz Negotiation Institute

What can we learn from jazz musicians about negotiation? Seemingly little. Yet a new book on negotiation by Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler, “The Are of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World,” makes a compelling case that jazz and negotiations share important traits.

Here are two important strategies Wheeler recommends, among others:

1. Manage the inevitable uncertainty with adaptability, creativity and agility.

Wheeler quotes master negotiator Richard Holbrooke, who was instrumental in negotiating the end of the bloodshed in the Balkans, as describing negotiation as more like jazz than science. “It’s improvisation a theme. … You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”

I agree. Every negotiation involves surprises, many significant and unexpected, and expert negotiators need specialized skills to analyze, influence and manage them and the chaotic impact they have on the process.

What are those skills, and how can you prepare for the unexpected?

Flexibility, a creative mind-set, adaptability toward change, a positive attitude facing uncertainty, the ability to improvise, and a lack of fear of the unexpected constitute such skills.

Importantly, we can learn to more effectively utilize these skills. Jazz musicians study and practice these all the time. How can we strengthen these skills? Wheeler suggests you:

  • Deeply listen and pay close heed to your counterparts.
  • Learn from counterparts; adapt your strategy and style accordingly.
  • Look for surprising non-verbal signals and messages, including on the emotional front.
  • Embrace the unexpected and the opportunities it may generate.
  • Relax and try to consciously stay loose under pressure.
  • Explore beyond your comfort zone. Be provocative sometimes.
  • Be situationally aware and prepared to modify your game plan if necessary.
  • Take calculated risks where warranted.

This does not mean, however, that you do not extensively plan. I am a huge proponent of strategic planning. It does mean, though, that you don’t become rigidly wedded to your preset plan.

Dwight Eisenhower before D-Day said, “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.” Be prepared and flexible.

2. Set the stage for success.

First impressions disproportionately impact our view of others. This is true the first time you meet someone. And it’s true for negotiation openings – the first time parties engage. It’s thus incumbent on us to spend sufficient planning time to get our openings right.

Wheeler sets up a useful framework for this crucial part of the process. In essence, he suggests we prepare for openings on three interrelated levels. First, he suggests we evaluate the “who” of the negotiation – the “identity, roles and relationships” of the parties. Will they be a friend or foe? Are your interactions going to be easy or hard? Which do you want? Then develop tactics to accomplish your preferred relationship.

Second, Wheeler recommends we “frame” the task early on – the “what” of the negotiation. Are you “pursuing a partnership, resolving a conflict, or simply haggling?” Will it be collaborative problem-solving or competitively win-lose? And again, what do you want it to be and how can you initiate the process to help make that happen?

Finally, set the tone and pace of the process – the “how” to engage – in a way to accomplish your goals.

And don’t underestimate the impact of the “how.” It may ultimately determine if you get a deal.


Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation Institute, a national negotiation training and consulting company, and ExpertNegotiator, a Web-based software company that helps managers and negotiators more effectively negotiate and implement best practices based on the experts’ proven research.  He is also the author of Gain the Edge! Negotiating to Get What You Want (St. Martin’s Press 2004). He can be reached at 480-951-3222 or Latz@ExpertNegotiator.com

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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