Empathy in Negotiations

Empathy while negotiating is essential to maximizing value and closing deals. Empathy is the act of understanding the emotions of the other negotiators.

Negotiators are People First

In Getting to Yes Fisher and Ury observed that negotiators are people first and encouraged you to separate the people from the problem. They taught that it was a prime concern to recognize and understand your other’s emotions.

Understanding Their Emotions

A cursory search of empathy in negotiation literature reveals two different but connected concepts:

  • Empathy for the objective state of the other
  • Empathy for the subjective state of the other

The first concept, understanding the objective state of the other, is advocated by negotiation trainers like Robert Mnookin. It is about seeing the deal from the position of the other. It is important but not what this post is about.

This post focuses on the second type of empathy in negotiations. Understanding the subjective state of the other, emotional empathy, will help you identify how to structure your proposal to help your other understand your value proposition.

Of course these concepts are related. If you are in a powerful position and have a great BATNA and your other does not have an acceptable BATNA or if the BATNA for the other party includes a negative outcome for the negotiator, the objective empathy for your other’s position will inform your thoughts about their emotional state. However understanding their objective position is different that understanding their emotional state. A computer can understand an objective position and a kindly but uninvolved relative can understand an emotional state. Negotiators need to understand both and deal with the emotional state. 

Dealing with Emotions

Once you identify your other’s emotional state, you can make a plan to address it. Gary Furlong in his book The Conflict Resolution Toolbox talks about Christopher Moore’s triangle of satisfaction. 

Triangle of Satisfaction Empathy in negotiations

Where the deal is lacking in objective (substantive) results, negotatiors can still be satisfied by a process that supports the emotional needs of the participants.

Obviously a bad deal is still a bad deal but addressing non substantive needs is important when deals are good enough to be made but not good enough to be liked.

Consider informal discussion

In a formal settings empathy in negotiation is replaced by seeing the actors as the role they are filling. Look for an opportunity to grab a coffee or talk about something that is not the negotiation to communicate that you are interested in the individual behind the role. 

Consider a break

Sometimes emotional flair ups are temporary or are related to factors that are not part of the negotiation. If you suspect that factors out side the negotiation are causing negative emotions in your other and the negotiations are not time limited, it is best to delay.

It isn’t hard to imagine a situation where a principal or lead negotiator gets a call from their child’s school alerting them to some minor emergency during a negotiation. While they may offer to stay, you need to ask yourself and consider with your team if they will be present at the negotiation or if they will be distracted. A break may be the solution.

Consider mediation

As a mediator, I can tell you from first hand experience, sometimes the best way to deal with intense emotions is by involving a neutral. Mediation allows a professional work through some of the emotions and defuse situations that would impede an agreement. If you need help working through a deal, drop me a line and we can discuss if I can be of service. 

Dealing in Emotions

Empathy is a basic human function that is often derailed by negotiations. Negotiations are often discussions over who will get to control certain quantities of limited resources. Whether the resources are labour, money, gold, trade routes doesn’t matter. If whatever the other side of the table had was readily available for free or cheap, you wouldn’t be negotiating. Accordingly negotiations always occur over things that have some degree of scarcity to the other side. 

The impact of this scarcity is to forget the human on the other side of the table. Scarcity makes us view the other side, the outgroup, as less deserving or with hostility. Hopefully what you have read so far will ensure that you aren’t the one forgetting the other side are people just like you. But how can you help remind them about you?

How can you help remind them about you?

Firstly, there is nothing limiting your negotiation to discourse about the objective points of the deal. Discussion of emotion during negotiation can be useful. But remember: negotiations aren’t therapy.

If you don’t think your other is showing empathy in negotiations, then speak up about how their offer or their tactics are making you feel. When having this conversation, it is important to avoid accusations. Rather than saying “Your offer pissed me off” it may be better to consider using the passive voice: “When we got your offer, I got pretty upset.” In the first statement, the active version, you are blaming them. This opens up the door to a discussion about if their offer should have pissed you off. In the second version, in the passive voice, you are linking their offer and your emotional state but in a less accusatory way. It invites them to ask what about their offer caused you concern.

In early research about out groups, Sherif sent 22 boys to Robbers Cave State park. The boys were put into two groups, each unaware of the other and allowed time to bond. Sherif then brought the groups together to compete. Significant animosity developed. After the competition phase the two groups had negative views of each other until Sherif and his researchers engineered tasks where the groups needed to work together to be successful. Working together for a common goal overcame the in-group outgroup dynamic.

So what does this mean for how you use empathy in negotiation? Simple, how you frame an issue can impact the emotional state of the people you are negotiating with. 

When possible, challenges to the deal should be framed as joint problems and your other should be asked to participate in solving them.

FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss teaches the use of the work how to get your other to participating in solving a problem. Asking how puts your other in control but identifies your challenges with the proposal.

Empathy for Team Members

For larger deals, negotiation teams may have a number of stakeholders who are all part of the negotiation team. Having empathy in internal negotiations is just as important for negotiating with the other party, and may be even more important if the negotiation team will be required to present and endorse the deal to a larger group, a board or a CEO.

Prior to starting a team negotiation the lead negotiator should ensure that negotiation team training and preparation includes a discussion on emotional states during negotiation and set the expectation that the lead negotiator will check in from time to time on how team members are feeling about the way the negotiations are progressing.

Dealing With Your Own Emotions

Emotions are an essential part of any negotiation. To paraphrase William Ury, the greatest obstacle to our success in negotiation is ourselves. It is the tendency to react – to act without thinking. Having strategies to deal with your emotional state is important. Strategies can slow your reactions and modulate your responses.

Posted in Negotiation.

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