You Have to Be Just a Little Bit Stupid to Negotiate

Reposted from Forbes Woman.

What's right is what's left if you do everything else wrong. -- Robin Williams

We tell you to research and prepare, know what you want, get a handle on your bottom line, plan your concessions in advance, and to sit down at the negotiation table ready to anchor high and have a conversation leading to agreement. And we mean it.

We can design an app for that. We can probably find a robot to walk us through the paces of any negotiation, but when beautiful, fallible human beings gather to get a little, give a little, there comes a moment when all bets are off, and the planning goes out the window. If we’re lucky, the whole conversation flows and ebbs and banks and turns, and thanks to the rudder of your intention, everybody walks away happy. Maybe a little wet, but happy.

But you’ve got to be just a little bit stupid to negotiate well.

Negotiation is improvisation, and improv (and theatre) requires a certain stupidity. An empty-headed flexibility. And curiosity-fueled possibility seeking.

The rules of improv are simple: say yes, and add information. Just like any sport or craft or art or profession, practitioners spend a lot of time in rehearsal saying yes, adding information, falling on their faces and getting up and doing it again. But they aren’t always rehearsing outcomes, they’re exercising the muscles of possibility toward an intended, yet uncertain goal. They’re exercising their stupidity.

An uncertain goal? Even if you plan your moves in advance, and get mostly what you intended to get from your conversation, every negotiation has an element of the unexpected. You got a 10 percent raise and an extra week of vacation instead of a 20 percent raise. Instead of a holiday cruise away from in-laws, you’re cruising up the 101 to visit both sets of relatives. Instead of six weeks to design a new project with your team of 10, you get three months with a team of four.

You flub a line, skip a cue and you better be able to improvise or the whole play might end after the first act.

People who like control, certainty and prescribed, tidy boxes will need, well, let’s say much more rehearsal. More wrangling. More concessions. More open-ended questions. But when the curtain comes down, you will hear the applause of exceeded expectations, preserved relationships, happier employees, and thrilled clients.

Stefan Mumaw, a writer over at Parse, a project of How Design, describes the beauty of stupidity this way in his post Walk in Stupid:

In the London office of ad giant Wieden + Kennedy, folks are greeted by an unusual doorman: a mannequin in a pin-stripped business suit carrying a briefcase. Two key oddities are immediately recognized within the manly figure. First, his head has been replaced by a blender. Second, his black leather briefcase is emblazoned with bright pink letters, formed into an easy-to-say-but-hard-to-do encouragement to those who call these creativity-laced hallways their home: Walk in stupid every morning.

The directive’s genesis can be found in Dan Wieden’s own philosophy about innovation and culture, “Sometimes it seems that if you’re never lost you’re never going to wind up any place new.” The phenomenon that Wieden is referencing here is what I like to call Creative Cluelessness, that endearing quality that emerges when folks undertake a creative challenge that they simply have no process to define. It’s a wonderful experience, one full of innocence and joy. But it’s also full of education, which makes it so hard to repeat.

Learning the rules and strategies and tactics of negotiation is relatively easy. Practicing them toward a flawless performance is not the goal. Practice is the goal, and over time, the experience will be perfection.