The Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu famously wrote that the “supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Using empathy at the negotiation table is the modern-day embodiment of this strategy.
A fundamental human need is to feel accepted, validated, and understood by others. This reality means that negotiation strategy is really a lesson in psychology. To get from Point A to Point B, the skilled negotiator must exploit psychological principles – and this means empathy must play a role.
A critical mistake many negotiators make is to view empathy and sympathy interchangeably, and dismiss both as weak. Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. Merriam-Webster defines sympathy as the “inclination to think or feel alike,” a “feeling of loyalty,” and the “tendency to favor or support.” Sympathy almost never has a place at the negotiation table. In the negotiation of a business deal or at settlement discussions, few clients would want to hear their lawyer say to their adversary, “I get it – I agree it’s terrible what you went through. So here’s the check you asked for.” The sympathetic negotiator may not be much of a negotiator.
But the empathetic negotiator approaches things differently. Consider the Merriam-Webster definition of empathy: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings thoughts, and experience of another…” The use of “vicariously” is critical here: unlike the sympathetic negotiator, the empathetic negotiator understands her adversary’s position, but doesn’t actually experience it or necessarily agree with it. Instead, she uses empathy to let the adversary know that she hears and understands him. By tuning into her adversary’s emotions instead of just the words, the empathetic negotiator shows that she “gets it,” which helps the adversary open up and share additional information that the empathetic negotiator can use to her advantage. Think, “I get it – I understand why you feel that way. So what if we…”
Think how much more effective you can be in a negotiation if you understand the factors that got your opponent to his position – and therefore, what might move him away from it. Rather than taking a shot in the dark about what might work or keeping the focus solely on you (or your client), when you understand your adversary and use his own views to shape the conversation, you’ll go a lot further, a lot faster.
Too many negotiators are hell-bent on appearing authoritative, unflinching – like the “tough guy,” willfully ignorant of the forces shaping the other side. There are only so many deals you can make if that’s your negotiation strategy. (Someone should let Washington know.)