Negotiating with Empathy: Not a State of Mind, It is an Action


negotiating-with-empathyEmpathy is commonly defined as being very close to sympathy in many cases.  Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.  Empathy as it applies to negotiation is neither one, and going into a situation where you are trying to influence the other side using empathy with this characterization will only hinder progress.  The linguistics professionals can describe empathy however they see fit.  But they are not negotiators, they’re simply people filling books with words and have no feel for application.

The way we define empathy has much more to do with putting it into practice than anything else.  Our viewpoint directly deals with how can you use this as a tool to influence your counterpart.  In short, get them to agree to give you what you want.  Carl Rogers (considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research) was quoted referring to empathy as one of the most powerful ways to influence another in a relationship.  

“a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent, certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning.”  

Last I checked everyone who is anyone that negotiates wants to change something and needs the help of another party, and in order to accomplish that all parties involved must to learn about each other.

We all know how important relationships are in negotiation.  How they are defined and the stage at which the relationship is may vary, but it is a relationship nonetheless.  If you were to combine the aspects of a relationship with the power/need of influencing outcomes you would have the negotiation process.  How empathy factors in is best described as being able to recognize the perspective of the counterpart and vocalize that recognition.  Robert Mnookin (a Harvard Law Professor and author of “Bargaining With The Devil”) said it best with “Nor is empathy about being nice…Empathizing with someone, therefore, does not mean agreeing with or necessarily liking the other side.” You don’t have to be in agreement with someone else, or even like them, to be able to see or predict what the world looks like to them and then vocalize that recognition.

Another great viewpoint into the use and definition of what empathy actually is comes from Daniel Goleman Ph. D and author of the book “Emotional Intelligence” where he discusses the idea of cognitive empathy.  Which he describes as simply knowing what the other person feels or is thinking, he goes on to describe this as very useful in a negotiation or when trying to motivate people.

Overall people are too caught up in this argumentative approach to negotiation or even sales.  I think a common notion to influence is getting the other side to buy a product or service, get them to agree to terms, by explaining to them why it’s a good idea and what about me or my stuff is so great.  Then defend or diffuse their counterpoints by finding holes in their thinking and exploiting them.  The real issue with this is that arguing your points or proving your validity through debate does work, but is flawed.  If you could improve your effectiveness by a mere 20% using empathy would it be crazy to give it a shot?  You can pitch a baseball in the strike zone underhanded and the batter might not hit it.  But with the proper windup and overhand delivery you make your pitch that much more effective.  That’s what proper use of empathy is in negotiation.  The action comes from the vocalization of the other side’s perspective.  It doesn’t mean you agree, can relate to or even like their perspective.  It is simply about seeing and saying, which is one of the many things in this world that is easier said than done.  

Make sure to infuse your next negotiation with empathy. 


Read more articles from Brandon and learn about the Effectively Influencing Others Course.

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About The Author

Brandon Voss is the Director of Operations and an Instructor/Consultant with 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.