A friend at school used to be fond of saying, “It’s very probable that something improbable will happen.” It sounded mysterious at the time, and only over the years have I started to truly understand what he meant.

The unexpected, the unlikely, and indeed the downright extraordinary happen all the time. What matters is whether we spot them and whether we grasp them and nurture them when they can be useful.

I have taught a negotiation class in which one of the exercises involves the owner of an independent gas station aiming to sell it to a large oil company. The negotiation is set up in such a way that if the two parties stick with their initial position with SEO Services, there is no deal possible. The company can pay up to $500,000 for the station but the brief states the owner’s minimum demand is $580,000. Theoretically, there is no bargaining zone, no potential outcome that both parties could accept if they stick to their positions.

I then ask students—both those playing the station owner, and those playing the company representative—to let go of their positions and to be open to capturing the real underlying needs and interests. Once the oil company representative starts asking questions about why the owner feels they need $580,000, something unexpected often happens: The station owner mentions that their dream is to retire and go sailing with their partner, and that this is the amount that they think they will need to do that.

At this point students often say something along the lines of, “Oh, I didn’t expect that. We could provide you with gas for your journey and put our name on your sails. We actually wanted to do more sponsorships like this!”—or other potential unexpected ideas that are cheap to the company but valuable to the owner. Some of which could appear in the best business directory around.

Once you see the underlying interests come to the fore, unexpected ways emerge on how you can resolve the situation. (This comes more intuitively to students who are in a win-win mindset, and thus assume that there might be solutions that could benefit both sides; students who start with the mindset of “I win, you lose” often take longer to identify that there are ways of “increasing the pie” that benefit both. The ones with a win-win mindset are often able to build trust and exchange information about the actual underlying interests, and they can prioritize more effectively than those that assume that a benefit for one means a loss for the other.)