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Book Review: ‘The Art of Negotiation’ by Michael Wheeler

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Mike Tyson once said – “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face“. Improvisation, in other words, goes a long way toward a successful strategy in any context but also in the context of negotiation.

negotiationwheelerIn The Art of Negotiation, Harvard Business School Professor and editor of Negotiation Journal, Michael Wheeler echoes the sage insight of the master of the ring: canned, scripted plays can’t survive contact with reality because the people you’re negotiating with are capable of surprising moves and are just as smart and fallible as you. Assume otherwise, and you’ve set yourself up for failure before you start because you hobble yourself with rigid plans that never account for every outlier. Negotiation, like any strategic interaction, is, above all an interaction, a conversation, and to maintain an edge you need to be flexible and open to possibilities.

The Marine Warfighting manual states, as Wheeler points out, that openings for action come and go — so do openings for advancing your goals during a negotiation. Why do openings come and go? Because the interaction between two parties alters the perception of interests the parties have. Each action and reaction alter the situation in which the parties find themselves in. Because most goals are situational, they can change in their importance. It is this fluidity that makes the traditional framework suggested in Getting to Yes, with its suggestion of focusing on interests, hard to apply.

To see these openings, and to help you become a more nimble negotiator, Wheeler develops a three part loop: learn, adapt, influence.  The book is divided into four parts, the first three corresponding to the three elements of the loop. Part four, titled mastery, offers the reader with synthesis of these elements.

Part One deals with the basics of approaching the negotiating situation by helping you answer the essential questions. Should you negotiate at all? Is the time right for negotiation? And, how much of a commitment should you make? Answering these deceptively simple questions requires that you do two things: you have to try to imagine what possible setbacks and opportunities can occur once you are negotiating. Of course, this isn’t easy and a dose of imagination tempered by deep expert knowledge of how things really work in your situation is required. In other words, you need to develop a counterfactual imagination by asking what if and now what, much in the way that novelists do in order to develop possible scenarios and help you avoid the unexpected that might arise.

Another method that Wheeler offers is the deal triangle. Unlike the test of wills model of negotiation, which sees the contest as a zero sum game, the deal space approach opens up the negotiating situation to imaginative tweaking by asking you to consider three sides of the issue: your baseline, their baseline and outside constraints. The more you work through the possible plays ahead of time by working them through the deal triangle, the more flexible you will be going in.

Wheeler mentions something that may seem obvious in his discussing of the deal triangle: information is power. If your opponent can see your deal space but you can’t see theirs, you’re at a disadvantage. Knowing what is possible is also an essential test of your success as a negotiator. The more you know about the other side, their perceived baseline, the more successful you can be. But in our social network world, one should ask oneself one central question, is it wise to leave so many crumbs of information through our use of Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and other services? By being social, sending emails through unsecured free services, we become known to someone. We give away information about ourselves and thus give away our power. Being known and knowable is also to give away our most innermost self and so to become predictable.

Especially instructive in part four is the nuanced approach to the issue of success in negotiation. It does not always mean a good thing, for the negotiation context is a wicked one as opposed to an easy learning environment — in other words, it is easy to learn the wrong lesson due to the fact that we may draw an absolute principle from inadequate evidence or confuse how we did with what we ultimately got in the negotiation.

The most important question in the context of mislearning is, what don’t you see about the situation? We are apt to learn from what we do see, but ignore the blind spot created by what we don’t. Thus the key thing to consider are your feedback mechanisms — are they robust enough to alert you should you find yourself relaying too much on what you believe works when in fact you are missing something essential?

Another key issue in mislearning is your future perception of the agreement. Will whatever you are seeking to achieve matter to your future self? Is it worth the fight? Considering the endpoint of the process and what it may mean is an essential aspect of the process.

In The Art of Negotiation, Wheeler offers a learned treatment of the fine points of negotiation with a focus on moving beyond a zero sum game but doing so in a nuanced and thoughtful manner.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • Eugenie

    The book seems over-hyped and unoriginal, according to some reviewers on Amazon. Questions are raised about the narrowness of Prof Wheeler’s reading and the originality of his ideas on negotiation as chaos management, so that some authors (one in particular) who should have been read and cited do not get a mention.

  • bliffle

    We ALL need more education in negotiation, particularly if you are a mere employee trying to deal with a corporate employer. All the cards are stacked in favor of the employer: he has a law staff of dozens of highly paid Wall Street lawyers, if not at his call, they have at least written the books he’s read about negotiating with employees, they wrote the laws that favor him, they trained the very lawyers you may try to hire to represent you (so even YOUR lawyer is imbued with the culture of employers rights), and they populate the courts and the benches where judges deliver judgements such as this choice one “the court is reluctant to interfere in the rights of employers”.

    That’s IF you can even get a case against an employer into court, which is probably forbidden by the employment contract you witlessly signed, which requires ‘arbitration’ by an arbitrator (often named, and prejudiced against the employee because they know that the employer will pay for favorable decisions).

    And if a prospective employee tells the employer he wants to modify the terms of the employment agreement he’s laughed at: “take it or leave it.” Usually the agreement is only proferred after the employee has accepted the offer and quit his old job.

    Those are just some of the facts regarding employee negotiations with an employer before employment. The process of negotiation after employment, “reverse negotiation”, is even more hazardous, since you may be deprived of your very ability to earn a living.

    I don’t know if this guys new book is any good or not, I haven’t read it and I won’t. But I’ll say this: we have left the age of trust, when Americans could depend on each other. We hope to replace that system with one of contracts and monetization, when everything (everything!) has a price tag. And then the poor human has only knowledge and incorporation as defenses against marauding monopolies.