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Negotiating with Empathy

Aug. 7, 2015

Silhouettes of People in a Business MeetingEverybody negotiates. Unless you live in a very remote area that requires almost no interaction with other people, your life is going to involve negotiation to some degree. Some people, of course, negotiate frequently as part of their professional responsibilities, others only negotiate in the context of their personal lives. But whether your life requires the type of sophisticated negotiations in which business, legal, sales, and other types of professionals engage, or whether your negotiations are simpler and less frequent, it behooves all of us to understand how negotiation works and to have the right attitude about it. And unless the person at the other side of the table is a true “enemy” (e.g. negotiating a surrender after a war, negotiating a resolution to a lawsuit) part of the right attitude is approaching negotiation with empathy.

The idea of empathic negotiation will probably sound oxymoronic to most people. After all, negotiations are, by nature, competitive. In what context would you ever want to have empathy for somebody with whom you are in direct competition? My purpose in writing this article is to suggest that the way that we view our ‘opponents’ in a negotiated setting is not very constructive, often leads to a deadlock, and is likely responsible for some unsatisfying agreements.

When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.
— Stephen Covey

1. This is Not Truly a Competition

This idea will seem very unintuitive, and possibly even counterproductive, to most people. Isn’t the whole point of a negotiation to get as much as you can possibly get? Isn’t getting as much as you can possibly get out of the negotiation directly damaging to the other side’s interests? Wouldn’t we assume that our negotiating partner is going to protect those interests fiercely, and all attempts at getting the other side to yield would be competitive in nature?

The answer, of course, to all these questions is “yes, usually.” And while certain aspects of any negotiation are going to necessarily be competitive, that does not mean that the proper approach to negotiation is to think of it as a competition. Rather, in almost all circumstances, the better approach to negotiation would be to think of it as a collaboration. If you’re seriously trying to negotiate, you’re approaching the negotiating table with a need, you have an expectation that the person on the other side of the table is going to be capable of giving you what you need, and you should expect that you’re going to be in a position provide her with what she needs. Both sides come to the table with a problem that needs solving – both sides should be able to walk away from the table with a satisfactory solution. Approaching such a situation with understanding and compassion is an important part of setting the stage so that you can persuade the other side that she can provide you with your needs without sacrificing her own.

This is not universally true, of course. Occasionally you will be forced to deal with somebody who is completely unresponsive to your overtures and unappreciative of the fact that your need is legitimate. As an optimist, I tend to think this is actually rare. Treat your ‘opponent’ like a collaborator, and you’ll set the stage for a more satisfying result.

2. Distinguish the Need from the Position

In most negotiations, each side comes to the table with a particular ‘position’ in mind. Let’s take, for example, a private auto sale. Jonny wants to sell his 2004 Toyota Camry, and he lists the price at $5000. Tanya wants to buy the Toyota Camry, but she only wants to pay $3000 for it. When the two come together, they each present their respective positions – Jonny’s position is that the price of the car is $5000, Tanya’s position is that the price of the car is $3000.

It’s perfectly possible that from there, Jonny and Tanya can narrow the $2000 gulf in between their respective positions through offers and counteroffers. Jonny might say “well, I can let it go for $4500,” to which Tanya will counter with “$3500” and so forth. But when you approach a negotiation with only the positions in mind, without exploring what the ‘need’ truly is, you might miss out on an opportunity for creating a more satisfying deal. What Jonny didn’t tell Tanya is that he has a college tuition payment coming up, and he’s worried that if he doesn’t have something in the neighborhood of $5000, he won’t be able to pay his college bills. So Jonny’s ‘need’ isn’t $5000, his need is to have the ability to pay his college bills, and if there were a way to do that without Tanya agreeing to his ‘position’ that the car is worth $5000, Jonny would be satisfied. What Tanya didn’t tell Jonny, and would have had no reason to tell him because she knew nothing about his need, is that her best friend works for Jonny’s school and is privy to several scholarship opportunities that could assist Jonny with his financial burden. If Jonny’s college bill was lightened in this way, he might be much more likely to sell the car for a number closer to Tanya’s expectations.

Of course, this is a fairly crude example, but a scenario like this demonstrates why showing empathy, and spending some time to try to learn about your negotiating partner and what his needs are, can help both parties reach a more satisfying resolution. If the parties in the hypothetical agreed to a $4000 purchase price, it would be a far less satisfying resolution for both parties than if Tanya helped Jonny secure a $5000 scholarship to pay his tuition, and then a $3000 purchase price. In the first scenario, Jonny is $1000 short of paying his bills, and Tanya pays an extra $1000 above what she thinks the car is worth. In the second scenario, Jonny pays his bills and has an extra $3000 in his pocket, and Tanya pays exactly what she thinks the car is worth. Everybody wins.

3. Remember, People are Involved

Completing a negotiation with a favorable outcome for you or your client can be an immensely satisfying experience. Like most professional or personal victories, these experiences can be empowering and gratifying. And while there is no shame in feeling satisfaction over a job well done, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes a satisfying victory comes at somebody else’s expense. Keep your values in mind when you negotiate – if you’re trying to make the world a better place, it does you no good to negotiate an outcome that harms people that do not deserve to be harmed, and it does not help your reputation to do things that will cause people to perceive you as a predator.

Failing to remain consistent in your values, and lending to the interpretation that you are not conducting yourself with integrity can be catastrophic both personally and professionally. For this reason, it is important to remain empathic in the negotiation process – putting effort into understanding the impact that your proposed outcomes will have on people, and considering whether the deal you are attempting to strike is going to hurt people that do not deserve it. Keep the big picture in mind, remember your values, and remain empathic in your approach.

As a society, we are trending towards collaboration in almost every sphere. Diplomacy is solving most international disputes, most lawsuits are resolved through alternative dispute resolution, and consumers are becoming more and more informed when they are attempting to negotiate a purchase. My suggestion is to remember that we are dealing with people and that having and displaying empathy is always a good thing when we are dealing with people!