The Art of Negotiation - Critical summary review - Michael Wheeler

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The Art of Negotiation - critical summary review

The Art of Negotiation Critical summary review Start your free trial
Corporate Culture & Communication, Career & Business and Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 978-1451690422

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Critical summary review

Both professional and personal environments demand negotiation skills.  Whether you want to sell a house or get a pay raise, a good negotiation strategy is useful to have. So how do you go about crafting your negotiation master plan? Michael Wheeler’s “The Art of Negotiation” looks at negotiations in real life and provides a framework of how to prepare yourself. Get ready to become a master negotiator!

Preparation is everything

Until now, there have generally been two accepted conventional models of successful negotiation: either it is a win-lose or a win-win negotiation. In the first case, both parties are so stubborn that eventually, one must cave in. Alternatively, both parties take the interest-based approach adopted by William Ury in “Getting to Yes,” meaning that both parties come to an agreement that is beneficial for each.

While both of these models work in theory, the reality is that  negotiation is much more complex. Most negotiators, whether they are politicians or businessmen, agree that to be successful, you must embrace chaos. Negotiations are dynamic, and it is important that you stay agile throughout.

Nevertheless, you should always go into a negotiation well-prepared. You must know what your ultimate goal is, as well as your baseline - that is, the lowest alternative you are willing to accept. You need to create your own map beforehand to guide you through your negotiations.

A map gives you confidence, impetus, and awareness. Just take the example of a group of soldiers caught in a blizzard in the Swiss Alps. They had completely lost their way and had no idea if they would make it out alive. Luckily, one soldier found a map at the bottom of his backpack. They made camp for the night and once the blizzard had cleared, they used the map to find their way back home.

Several days later, they were back at camp, and the astonished commanding officer asked how they had survived. They showed him the map, and upon scrutinizing it, it turned out that this had been a map of the Pyrenees, not the Alps! Simply having a plan to stick to had given the soldiers the resolve to live and to make it back to camp.

The same is true for negotiations. Wheeler says that when you have a backup plan, you are more confident in your dealings. However, you should not underestimate the importance of improvising. Since negotiations are dynamic environments, you should avoid sticking to obsolete, rigid plans. To do this effectively, Wheeler suggests asking yourself three questions before starting any negotiation: 

  1. “Should I negotiate?” Which position are you in right now? What’s your goal and what are your fallback options?
  2. “Is now the time?” What are the circumstances of your negotiation partner? Are you likely to be successful?
  3. “Do I hedge or go all in?” Which key factors do you not know at the outset? 

To successfully answer these questions, it can be helpful to do a “pre-mortem” to balance out optimism and realism, and to avoid wishful thinking. Take some time to imagine the most likely ways there could be a major setback or a pleasant surprise. That way, you are less likely to be surprised during the negotiation!


Even though preparation in advance is essential for a successful negotiation, things might not go according to plan once you have started. Negotiations are shrouded in fog, so there is only so much you can know ahead of time.  

That is why it is important to adopt the right mindset from the outset. You must have emotional and mental calmness to stay in control of the situation. Master negotiators are both calm and alert, patient and proactive, practical and creative. 

If feelings do arise, put them to creative use: be like a jazz player. Jazz musicians, unlike classical music players, do not have sheet music. They start with a theme and then each instrument improvises upon the theme. The fact is that the various musicians do not have to know or even like each other to create wonderful, harmonious music!  Take “The Roots” for example. Two of the founders of this famous jazz band do not get along on a personal level, but the music they create together still inspires the masses.

A good negotiator is not only internally-centered but also aware of the negotiating partner’s emotional state. Pay special attention to what the other person is saying, but also how they say it - their intonation, wording and body language all provide clues to how the other person is feeling.

To improvise successfully, you should adopt a mindset of cautious optimism: stay positive while simultaneously keeping an unflinching realism. To hone your improvisation skills, you could also look at improv comedy troupes for inspiration: they bring the mindset of jazz to their own work. One important skill they display is that anything they say on stage will propel the story forward.

For example, an improv show could start with: “Brad! I never expected to see you here at the South Pole,” rather than beginning with just a simple, “Hi!” Another crucial role of improv comedy is to always agree and never negate. The other person on stage, for example, would not answer, “Actually, my name is Angela and we are in the Sahara,” but could say for example, “Yeah, when the company said it would give me the Southern territory, I expected Florida, maybe.”

Wheeler says you should also give up the goal of always saying the perfect thing at the perfect time. In real life, that is simply not possible. Much of the pressure you feel prior to a negotiation is self-imposed, and a fear of making a mistake will throw you off-balance.

Closing the deal

How do you know when it is time to close the deal? Take the example of a friend of the author, Ben Evans. He was offered a position at Arundel University, which would have been a great step up in his career. Normally, new hires were granted visitor status for one year before being granted a permanent position at the university. 

Since Evans was a well-known professor at the time, he asked to be granted permanent status immediately, which Arundel agreed to. He also negotiated a salary at the upper end of the scale, and even managed to secure more money for the research budget. When the Dean asked if they were finished, Evans asked if he could make the move to the university a year later than requested. This was not a deal-breaker for him, but he did not make that clear during the negotiations. Two days later, he received a letter of withdrawal of the offer from Arundel. Evans admits he is still annoyed that he did not take the offer when he got it, rather than pushing for yet another amendment to it.

To decide when to take a deal, again, preparation comes in handy. Had Evans considered the other side’s position beforehand - rather than only thinking about his own wishes - he might have been able to negotiate more effectively. 

Still, it is incredibly hard to say when to close a deal or push for more, since often, the only way you can know how far the other person is willing to go is by going one step too far - and losing out on the entire deal. The key to deciding is to assess the risk: are the possible wins worth the uncertainty? Or, would it be better to close the deal now rather than risk losing it completely?

It is also important to pick the right way of saying “yes.” In Evans’ case, for example, Wheeler says it might have been better for his friend to say something like, “Excellent. We’ve got a deal, for sure. I’d really appreciate it, though, if you could help me out on one last item.”

Even with all your preparation, you should still anticipate last-minute blowups. Real estate deals in particular are usually fraught with emotion, since one party is usually selling their home, and the other has hopes for the future. 

The way you negotiate throughout the process will help set up the ending. So, if you can manage to keep emotions in check and have a respectful and calm negotiation throughout, you can be relatively certain there will not be any unpleasant surprises at the end. In real estate deals, there are usually several intermediaries, so a personal note to the actual seller can often make all the difference. Relationships matter.

Becoming a master negotiator

To be a good improviser and negotiator, you also need to be creative. Often, the best deals are closed when one party can think of a creative solution. Take the example of Joseph Lash, an author who was asked to write a biography about Franklin Roosevelt. After years of research and effort, he finally handed in his 1,400-page biography to the publishing house – who, even though they loved the writing, decided that it was too long.

When Lash was asked to make severe cuts, he canceled the deal altogether and went to another publishing house, W. W. Norton & Company. They also loved the writing - and also thought the manuscript was too long. One of the editors came up with a creative solution, however: publish the book in two volumes. The publishing house did just that, and the series went on to win several book awards.

Good negotiators know how to creatively solve negotiation impasses - they know how to use lemons and make lemonade out of them. When you are really stuck, it can also help to ask someone else for advice. Usually, when we have a bit of psychological distance from a problem, we can come up with more imaginative solutions than someone who is stuck in the middle of it.

Expert negotiators also learn from their experiences. However, negotiations are wicked learning environments. Wheeler admits that since negotiations are often shrouded in fog, you may never quite know if you could have gotten a better deal. So even when you close a deal at the price you wanted to, you might still feel unhappy about the process. Wheeler warns that you must be careful about the conclusions you draw from your negotiations: don’t blame yourself when a deal goes wrong, but similarly, don’t congratulate yourself on your ingenuity when it goes right.

The best way to know whether you have made a good deal is to go back to the facts you had at the time. Even when new facts come to light, you should still evaluate your decision with the original context in mind. You can still learn from your experiences though, as long as you acknowledge uncertainty and keep these three key thoughts in mind:

  1. Beware of mislearning. Admitting that you don’t know is better than operating from an erroneous conclusion.
  2. Don’t confuse satisfaction with success.
  3. Remember: it’s not all about you.

Another thing worth keeping in mind is that we are notoriously bad at predicting our future feelings because we tend to overestimate their impact. So the things you deem important now may actually turn out to be less important than expected. So always ask yourself if the fight is worth fighting.

Final Notes

Far from having a rigid plan, you should embrace uncertainty and chaos in your negotiations. To become a master negotiator, it is much more important to develop your improvisation skills and hone your creativity. Nevertheless, you should prepare your negotiation beforehand by setting a clear goal for yourself and also by defining your baseline.

Publishers Weekly rated “The Art of Negotiation” a must-read, writing: “A clear-headed, creative approach to negotiation that is on a par with the canonical texts ‘Getting to Yes’ and ‘You Can Negotiate Anything’ … Wheeler’s lucid, engaging voice is a major asset, and sample scripts help drive home his points.”

12min Tip

Before a negotiation, create a catalogue of the key factors you know from the outset.

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Who wrote the book?

Michael Wheeler is an MBA professor at Harvard Business School. He teaches negotiation and several executive courses. Since 1993, Michael A. Wheeler teaches negotiation at Harvard Business School in his MBA program, executive courses and more recently in his HBX digital learning platform. His work focuses on negotiation pedagogy, improvisation in complex dynamic processes, ethics and moral decision-making, and various alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes. For twenty years, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Negotiat... (Read more)

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