Improvisation as a negotiation

“The real power and innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art – improvised art – and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art” – Wynton Marsalis”

Improvisers are trained to be masters of the “give and the take” – to simultaneously let go of control but to speak their ideas with confidence and boldness. How can this be, you might ask? Does nothing get accomplished?

It’s quite the opposite. The improviser’s negotiation table is a blank stage – there is no delineation between winner and loser, best or worst. It is a team sport where the rules of our negotiation are simple:

1. Accept and add on

2. Make the other person look good.

Beginning improvisers start by improvising in a way that’s comfortable for them – and that tends to fall on either end of the spectrum between being extremely timid or extremely domineering on stage. With practice and confidence the fear dissipates and one begins to see not only the benefits of both the give and take but is also comfortable playing either role.

One of my favorite examples of the Improvisers Negotiation in action comes from Keith Johnstone and it’s called Invisible Tug of War.

Ask two teams to mime playing tug-of-war, without a rope… and let this go on for a few moments. See what happens – and debrief around chivalry, give and take, noticing offers and making the other “team” look good.


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