On April 13, 2011, Terry Gross interviewed Tina Fey on the NPR radio program Fresh Air. They had a nice long chat about comedy, acting, and life in general prompted by the publication of Fey’s autobiography. When talking about her experience in the world of “improv,” Fey was asked, “When is the right time to come into a scene?” That is a great question for improvisational comedians, and I was struck by how important timing is for negotiators.
Negotiations are serious and seldom funny. Unlike negotiators, the improv actors don’t have the luxury of careful, in depth preparation. But negotiation is similar to improv acting in four important ways. First a talented improv actor like Fey approaches her craft with dedication, practice, and years of experience under her belt. Second, for any given performance, Fey probably starts with an idea for her skit in mind. Although she can’t be scripted, the starting idea allows her to have a firm footing at the outset. Third, the improv actor is fully present in the moment, which allows her to shift gears depending upon how the other actors react to her lines.
Unlike an improv actor, a skilled negotiator will engage in extensive preparation. She will develop a plan for the negotiation and visualize how the negotiations might go. She will have written out her and her opponent’s positions on each issue and gathered supporting documentation. She will have identified her BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and listened carefully to understand the BATNA of her opponent. This preparation is one factor that allows the negotiator to be present in the moment so that she can respond like an improv actor does.
Responding effectively in negotiation is similar to coming in at the right moment during an improv scene. No matter how well you have planned, you really don’t know what the other parties are going to do or say. Sometimes, they are going to speak and act in ways that surprise you. When that happens, you have to be skillful in knowing when to break in and what to bring to the scene. This skill is part of the art shared by improv and negotiation.
Tina Fey observed that some people answer the question about when to come into a scene by saying they would break in whenever they had a great idea or whenever they have a chance to steal the scene. But she observed that neither of those was the right answer. The right answer, she said, was to come into the scene when you are needed.
The skilled negotiator is needed “in the scene” in many ways, including guiding the process, closing the deal, crafting agreements, and suggesting solutions. It is certainly true that a good negotiator will not come in whenever something simply pops into their head. Similarly, a good negotiator is not interested in stealing the scene; making a statement only to look good. Like the improv actor the good negotiator comes in to the scene to further the purpose of the negotiation. One guide to when to come in is to ask the question “If I come in now, will it help create a better deal?” At the end of the negotiation, a good negotiator might ask herself “If I come in now, will it help close the deal or prolong the bargaining?”