Empathy: Ted Leonsis and Sumner Redstone


Empathy is for mercenaries and missionaries. Empathy strengthens relationships, creates flexibility in your counterpart and prevents blunders.

Beyond Winning

Beyond Winning book coverOne of the best chapters ever written on empathy is in Robert Mnookin’s book *Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes* (Mnookin is the head of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.) In the 2ndchapter in his book, titled “The Tension Between Empathy and Assertiveness”. Mnookin defines empathy as “the process of demonstrating an accurate, nonjudgmental understanding of the other side’s needs, issues, and perspective.” He goes on to say that “Empathy does not require people to have sympathy for another’s plight – – to ‘feel their pain.’ Nor is empathy about being nice……. Empathizing with someone, therefore, does not mean agreeing with or even necessarily liking the other side.” Mnookin’s chapter is assigned reading in my course in the MBA program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

A Passion to Win

A Passion to Win book coverWithout using the word empathy, Sumner Redstone (one of the world’s all-time great deal makers and a man who built cultural media icon Viacom and its multiple subsidiaries including MTV, VH-1 and Nickelodeon) talks about it in his book *A Passion to Win*. He says “In every negotiation it is vital to understand the other side’s goals. In this way you can tailor your offers to your counterpart’s objectives and not unnecessarily part with something of value to you but not to him or her.” Empathy is one means of preventing you from giving something that you value to someone who has no value for it. It’s a means of preventing negotiation blunders.


The definition the FBI uses in hostage negotiation is “Identification / understanding of another’s situation, feelings and motive”. The definition I use in my course is “The ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart (sometimes indicated by affective cues) & the vocalization of that recognition.” (My definition is derivative of work by Norma Deitch Feshback also.)

These various definitions of empathy are all essentially the same thing.

The Business of Happiness

The Business of Happiness book coverTed Leonsis (one of the principle architects of the growth of America Online – AOL) talks about empathy in his book*The Business of Happiness*. I’ve heard him speak in person several times and he always mentions empathy as being one of the cornerstones of his success. To paraphrase what he talks about as a professional sports team owner (The Washington Wizards basketball team and The Washington Capitals hockey team) he says that sports are meant to create the immortal moments that people will tell their grandchildren about. An example might be “I was there when the Caps scored 2 goals in less than 2 minutes to produce one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in the history of hockey.”

What professional athlete doesn’t want to play for an owner who will make him an immortal? Will that athlete be a little more flexible in what he will accept in his contract in exchange for immortality? What city doesn’t want to be flexible with a sports team owner who will bring its citizens those kinds of memories?

Sarah Weise earned her MBA at the McDonough School of Business and took my class. She then went on to engage in an independent study on empathy after volunteering at a local crisis hotline. She wrote in the Executive Summary of her study “In a time-sensitive negotiation, the speed at which an individual develops a connection with the other party could mean the difference between striking a deal and walking away. Whether you are brokering a billion dollar business deal, asking your landlord not to raise the rent, or persuading a stranger not to jump off a bridge, establishing a connection is vital to both problem solving and implementation.”

In essence, empathy saves time, relationships and deals.


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About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.