In numerous discussions on social media and elsewhere with colleagues, as well as in classes and training I’ve conducted, the issues of how best and what to negotiate are always part of the conversation. How much can we get? What do we ask for?

What are the hidden charges? What’s covered in force majeure protection? If concessions are first on our list of needs, are we getting enough? And on and on.

What is usually taught in our industry about negotiations is to prioritize what is needed, including the meeting content and delivery needs for the group and to present the group’s needs in an RFP, and for the vendor or facility to provide a proposal (often called a contract and, in my opinion, too often signed as is with no negotiation or counter offer).

The how of doing so—negotiating—is written about in many books and online articles. For me, the best training I ever received was when I took my first improvisation class. This was after a dear friend, librettist James Racheff, tried to teach me improv, saying it was a tool that the business world needed.

I confess to being too self-conscious to let go and really learn, but the improv bug had bitten. When another opportunity arose, I grabbed it and signed up for two improv classes at the International Association of Facilitators conference. I told everyone I’d signed up so that I wouldn’t back out!

I was still convinced that improvisation was Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Second City—as many still do—and I sure didn’t want to be on a stage no matter what my great high school speech teacher, Jim Payne, thought!

Facilitation and improv classes have taught me numerous lessons.

The two most important are to say:

  • “Tell me more,” a classic facilitation phrase that moves a conversation forward while getting the information needed. 
  • “Yes, and…” versus “yes, but… .” “Yes, and…” carries the conversation forward and in negotiations acknowledges one’s own needs and wants while learning of and acknowledging the needs and wants of the person with whom you are negotiating.

When I think about successful negotiations, I realize how much the parties to the negotiations use improv to make them successful. And I know that the least successful of negotiations are the foot-stomping, my-way-or-the-highway ones where there is no give and take, and all “yes, but…” versus “yes, and…”

Here then are four specific ways—and a bonus precursor—to better, more successful quality negotiations and ultimately, contracts.

  1. Determine what you need, want and must have and detail those in writing in an RFP.
  2. Ask those with whom you are negotiating for their needs, wants and must-haves.
  3. Acknowledge each other’s needs, wants and must-haves, whether it’s wording (not just because “legal said so” or “we’ve always done it that way,” but more because it makes sense in the context of the business), terms and conditions (specific numbers and dates versus percentages and days out), and all the other specifics that the parties discuss and agree to.
  4. Move it all forward with “yes, and…” and acknowledge at the start of the negotiations that those with whom you are working will help to keep the language in use.

Bonus advice: Take improvisation classes and practice the tools you learn.

They work in all relationships and business dealings. And they allow you to laugh at yourself when you say something unintended, so perhaps that’s a double bonus.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from a Meetings Today Blog post by Joan Eisenstodt.