For most people, negotiation is viewed alternatively as a game, a battle or a skill. In his new book, Michael Wheeler proposes that it is first and foremost an art form equal to jazz music. While there are structures and theories that underpin it, it is the ability to employ agile thinking and creativity which ultimately defines success or failure in any negotiation.

After observing that there isn’t much written about “improvising” in standard business books, Wheeler set out to bring together all the contemporary thinking on negotiation. The result is The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, an effective and accessible manual on the power, techniques and psychology of conflict and resolution.

After more than 60 years working in the field, including as Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School, Wheeler has a lifelong enthusiasm for negotiation that he lays out in a clear, scholarly style.

The book leads the reader through his personal theories and references a wide range of resources from the US Marine Corps’ Warfighting to musician Miles Davis’ seminal jazz album, Kind of Blue. Structurally, Wheeler focuses on the need to negotiate – the when, where and why of negotiation – including strategies and processes to reach agreement.

He then takes the reader through micro-interactions and tactics: how to prepare both mentally and emotionally for negotiation; the concepts of hardball and collaborative transactions; managing the flow; real world examples; turning points – dealing with threats and outbursts, including your own; closing; finessing; and, finally, a brush down of “ethics”.

Throughout the book, Wheeler quotes numerous contemporary authors and academics including Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, and Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.

The only book to which he doesn’t extend his unanimous enthusiasm is the 1980s classic, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, Bill Ury and Bruce Patton, which he describes as “preachy”. He goes on to say, “Two cheers for win-win negotiation. It rests implicitly on static assumptions about interests, options, circumstances and relationships, when these factors tend to be fluid and ambiguous.”

It is possible that his reservation about this book is about the conciliatory tone of Getting to Yes, and Wheeler’s desire to define himself apart from that terrain while still working in the same territory.

The “Art” in his title refers to his theory that success in negotiation owes more to musical improvisation than to game theory, war or sport. To prove his point, he quotes both musician Wynton Marsalis (“Jazz is negotiation”) and former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, who said, “Negotiation is like jazz. It is improvisation on a theme. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”

Furthermore, he proposes that the underlying skills of improvisation can be taught and practiced as they can in jazz, theatre, psychotherapy, warfare and sport. They all share a need for agility that rests on the principle of knowing when to solo and when to harmonize. To help his reader along, Wheeler guides them through the process of learning how to do that in business.

Read more book reviews on the Forum:Blog. Titles are selected in collaboration with getAbstract.

Author: Sheridan Jobbins is a journalist and screenwriter.

Image: Men are pictured shaking hands REUTERS/Jim Young.

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