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Improvising and Taking Risks

June 15, 2015

As a student trumpet player, I was first exposed to improvisation in a junior high school jazz band. I wasn’t very good at it at first. I hit wrong notes or played out of key.  Sometimes it was pretty jarring.  I just couldn’t follow or get in tune with what the others were playing.

Consequently, it was always much safer for me to play what was already written.

Later, by the time I was graduating high school, I was doing better at improvisation. I had had more practice.

With an ear for the music and some intuition, I listened better to what was going on around me, and responded as best I could with my horn, sometimes actually earning the applause the audience politely gave.

Sometimes, I made great music, not always.

But I learned that if I didn’t try, and take some risks on the spot, nothing good would ever come of it.

My development as a mediator was not unlike my development as a trumpet player.

At the beginning, I made all the safe moves that had been taught in those introductory mediation courses we all took.

I had my script and followed it. The moves were predictable. The results, sometimes glorious, mostly were ordinary. The easy cases settled because they were going to settle anyway. The harder cases? Well, that was a different story then.

At that stage, as with my early musicianship, I wasn’t really that much in tune with my surroundings.

And I didn’t improvise too much then, which I know now calls for more of a willingness to change the tune or the tempo, to adapt to the music or the moves of the other players, or to develop a new theme or take the chance with a impromptu solo or even some discord.

In my eleventh year of full time mediation practice, now there is much more improvisation in my work.

Professor Michael Wheeler of the Harvard Business School says it this way:

In both negotiation and jazz, this process of learning, adapting, and influencing takes place moment to moment in listening and responding. You reflect, affirm, rebut, reshape, and respond to whatever your counterparts put forth. And as in jazz, it’s impossible to anticipate every twist and turn. Like it or not, you have to improvise right from the start.  (Wheeler, M. (2013). The art of negotiation: How to improvise agreement in a chaotic world. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 98.)

But it’s riskier too; there’s no clear path, unlike what we were taught in beginning mediation classes.

Professor Wheeler, affirms with this quote from the late Richard Holbrooke:

“Negotiation is like jazz. It is improvisation on a theme. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.” Ibid., p. 96.

And the harder cases to settle?  Now they seem to be settling in greater numbers, although not always, or they’re moving closer to settlement than ever before.

And the harder mediations themselves?  Well, they’re more exhausting, and sometimes scarier, yet they are all the more rewarding when fruitful.

As Jimmy Carter reportedly said: “[You’ve got to] Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”  See,


David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California. His business website is at .


From → Mediation

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