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What negotiators can learn from improv comedy
photo by Bryce Edwards

A rudiment of improv comedy is building on what has already been said.

“If someone begins a skit by shivering and saying, ‘Gosh, it’s cold up here at the North Pole,’ it’s bad form to respond, ‘What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of the Sahara.’ Improv comics accept each other’s ‘offers,’ even if they’re unexpected or unwanted,” explain professors Lakshmi Balachandra and Michael Wheeler in Negotiation, a newsletter published by Harvard Law School. (Balachandra is a former improv comedian.)

The authors call this the “Say ‘yes, and. . .’” rule. The basic idea is that saying “yes, and. . .” is far better than saying, “yes, but. . .” for the simple reason that an “and” will immediately clarify where you and your counterpart are on common ground. Balachandra and Wheeler give the following example:

“Suppose a contractor interested in remodeling your office suite floats this proposal: 1) a floor plan that’s tricky to implement but perfectly suited to your team’s needs; 2) a price quote that’s slightly higher than you’d like; 3) completion in 10 months rather than your desired six-month time frame. If you’re not careful, you might immediately rattle off all the reasons why the third item is unworkable.

“Before yielding to that negative impulse, consider where a ‘yes, and. . .’ approach could take you. You might say, ‘I appreciate your willingness to accommodate our floor plan, which allows us to reciprocate on price. Now let’s figure out how to meet your need for extra time without causing us big headaches.’ They may push back, but the ‘yes, and. . .’ approach solidifies your progress and avoids painting your counterpart into a corner.”



For some straightforward tips on how to act during negotiations, we suggest Mike Hofman’s (@mikehofman) Inc. article “5 Things You Should Never Say While Negotiating.” For example: “The word between. It often feels reasonable—and therefore like progress—to throw out a range. . . . But between tends to be tantamount to a concession, and any shrewd negotiator with whom you deal will swiftly zero-in on the cheaper price or the later deadline.”

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