Empathy: A Missionary & Mercenary Skill


The reason I try to make it a point to use empathy in all negotiations and most conversations is because I have had the luxury of experiencing how powerful it is. Simply put, I use empathy because it works. Not because I am sympathetic to my counterpart or feel their pain. Not because I am going out of my way to be manipulative. Not because my father is a retired hostage negotiator, although that does in fact have a lot to do with why I know how to use empathy effectively. No matter what the situation, even if it is impossible for a deal to be made, a proper display of empathy causes my counterpart to go the extra mile for me.

In order to be clear on how empathy works you might as well put your dictionaries away. Merriam-Webster defines it “the ability to share someone else’s feelings”, which is almost the opposite of how we define it at Black Swan. The dictionary definition is much closer to how we would display sympathy, which in my book is an emotional hurdle in negotiation that should be avoided and ignored. We at Black Swan define empathy as the recognition and vocalization of the counterparts point of view. This definition is most similar to what Daniel Goleman identifies as cognitive empathy. In his book “Focus” he states that it can even be used by sociopaths. This shows that empathy has nothing to do with agreeing with your counterparts stance on a situation or feeling what they are going through, which is a common misconception.

Using empathy means you can properly identify or foresee your counterpart’s position and vocalize it in the most accurate way possible. In order to use empathy effectively you need to not be afraid of your counterpart’s point of view. You may be faced with situations where your counterpart’s view of you personally is not favorable one, which may cause you to be apprehensive, but in those instances the use of empathy is even more important. If you know they don’t like you and think you are an ass, that’s what you say to them, I am an ass or It must seem like I am an ass. One of the things that is so powerful about empathy is if you can get out in front of those negative inhibitions you can not only diffuse them but reset the playing field in a way that tips in your favor.

Whether you feel you are undertaking a righteous cause or are simply out for personal gain, using empathy can get you to your goal faster. Without a doubt the proper use of empathy is not only going to put the counterpart in a collaborative mindset but reset their thought patterns to start seeing things your way.

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Brandon Voss

About The Author

Brandon Voss is the President of The Black Swan Group. Brandon has been instrumental in adapting the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques to the business world. In addition to training clients, Brandon has guest lectured at USC Marshall School of Business and Georgetown McDonough School of Business.