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The skill of good negotiators can be likened to that of jazz musicians or comedians who improvise

Nelson Mandela famously spent some of his time in prison studying Afrikaner history and teaching himself Afrikaans, the language of his jailers. He understood that being able to see the world through the eyes of his adversaries would be important in any future negotiations.

Empathy and emotions – both one’s own and those of the other side – play a crucial role in negotiating and dealmaking, whether in politics or in business. Emotional awareness can help you navigate blind spots and prejudices and arm you with self-control.

In the recently published book, The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, Professor Michael Wheeler of Harvard Business School likens the skill of good negotiators to that of jazz musicians or comedians who improvise. Artists such as these know how to read each other’s moods, respond creatively to unexpected twists and turns and run with a theme.

If you break sweat at the mere thought of negotiating, Prof Wheeler says, the danger is that you will handcuff yourself with rigid plans, miss opportunities to solve problems creatively or settle too low. But, even if you are as cool as a cucumber, you still need to understand that others may not be. “As people we like to be in control; as negotiators we need others to say yes,” explains Prof Wheeler.

It is possible to ready yourself emotionally as part of the mental preparation for negotiating. Counterintuitively, resolving not to be nervous may do more harm than good since it diverts your attention from the other party to yourself. A better approach, says Prof Wheeler, is to turn anxiety into curiosity by listening intently to what the other side says and how they say it. Words, body language and subtle variations in vocal tone all give clues to the other party’s preoccupations, helping the emotionally perceptive negotiator to spot opportunities for agreement that others miss. As Prof Wheeler points out in his book: “If you are deeply attentive, your mind will be quieted.”

Insights from neuroscience and psychology suggest ways for negotiators to achieve emotional balance and prime themselves to succeed. For instance, recalling past achievements encourages optimism. Experiments that measure hormone release have shown that walking tall reduces anxiety.

Erin Egan, a senior manager in business development at Microsoft in the US, tries to channel her nerves into excitement, rather than suppress them. “I try to visualise an outcome that will be really positive and tell myself we’re going to get to a really great place.”

Although this sounds simplistic, it may have scientific justification. In experiments by Harvard researchers, volunteers told to say “I’m excited” while performing stressful tasks outshone those instructed to say “I’m calm”. The idea is that it is easier to shift from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to calm.

When it comes to working on the psyche of the opposite camp, businesspeople might learn from what works − and does not work − for diplomats and peacekeepers negotiating in hotspots where the stakes can be life or death.

Jeff Weiss, an adjunct professor at West Point, the US military academy, and partner at management consultant Vantage Partners, argues that the same principles apply whether in combat zones or conference rooms. He draws a parallel between an incident from the US engagement in Afghanistan and commercial disputes that he encounters in consultancy.

In the Afghan example, western intelligence officers wrongly detained a village leader for a year. They had assumed from calls to his mobile that he was an insurgent. In fact, the local Taliban was threatening him for opening a girls’ school.

The man demanded an apology and improved procedures, not simply compensation. However, the approach of the officer handling his settlement was to increase the proposed payout, without addressing his concerns or attempting to salve his hurt. The village leader ended up wealthier but more embittered, and vowed never again to trust westerners and advised his neighbours not to either.

The officer had made a classic negotiation mistake that businesses that feel themselves to be on shaky ground often make too: trying to take a short-cut to a settlement by buying goodwill rather than engaging in the painstaking business of repairing trust. As Mr Weiss says: “If you don’t show empathy, if you don’t dig into a problem to figure out the cause and make sure it won’t happen again, you won’t fix a relationship, no matter how much compensation you pay.”

Of course, you may listen, probe and empathise and still not achieve a meeting of minds. Some negotiations, by their nature, are essentially just haggles over price. Sometimes one side may see opportunities to expand the size of the pie by negotiating creatively, but the other just wants to drive the hardest bargain it can.

To stay on the front foot, says Prof Wheeler, consummate negotiators – like improv artists – need a repertoire of responses to call upon. “If someone is being utterly unreasonable and misstating facts, and you’ve tried correcting them politely and got nowhere, you might hammer the table to get their attention,” he says. But such displays should be undertaken strategically to serve a well thought-out purpose − “not because you have flown off the handle”.

Even with careful emotional preparation, however, talks can sometimes fail because, in the heat of the moment, negotiators mishear or misread each other’s motives, detecting slights where none were meant.

Experienced negotiators have a number of gambits for cooling things down when emotions run high. One of the simplest and most effective is to take a break. Another, popularised by the conflict mediator William Ury, author of Getting Past No, is to picture yourself on a balcony observing the negotiation from outside. When you step back in, your opposite number may still be unyielding, but your perception of the situation may have changed.

Michael McIlwrath, head of litigation for General Electric’s oil and gas division, offers a personal example. He once spent three frustrating months trying to hammer out a settlement with a combative advocate from a large European energy group.

With relations on a knife edge, his opponent suggested a solution so unorthodox and financially complex that he dismissed it as mischief-making. It was only when a colleague to whom he unburdened himself responded, “oh, interesting . . . sounds like a pretty good idea”, that he realised the suggestion was ingenious and good for both sides.

“We went from a bad dispute to [a settlement that] both companies regarded as a huge win and it led to a business relationship that [endures] to this day.”

As a demonstration of the adage “we see things not as they are, but as we are”, you could not want for a better example, he believes.

The jazz player’s guide to improvising a deal

In negotiation as in jazz, it is impossible to anticipate every twist and turn, says Michael Wheeler of Harvard Business School. Skilful improvisers:

●Pay heed. By paying close attention to what others express through body language, words and tone of voice, improvisers spot opportunities for agreement that others miss.

●Complement and go solo. Like virtuoso musicians, top negotiators know when to lead and when to give others the stage.

●Change tempo. This is as important as knowing how to harmonise. If talks are deadlocked, posing a surprising question may sometimes unlock them. If an opponent is unreasonable you may need to bang the table, say “no” loudly or walk away – but it should be you, not your emotions that make the choice.

●Stockpile fallbacks and get-outs for when inspiration fails. If you are stuck on one point, try moving to another. If tempers fray, take a break.

●Fit plans to reality, not reality to plans. Game-plans should be treated as hypotheses to test, reshape or discard − not as scripts.

Adapted from The Art of Negotiation, How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World

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