Negotiators need to distinguish empathy from sympathy. Empathy is when you feel another’s feelings. Sympathy is what you feel – or say you feel – as a result of another’s situation. The former is received at a deeper emotional level and helps build rapport and develop trust. The latter is more shallow, particularly when it is just an acknowledgment of the other’s hardship.
Evidencing empathy leads to negotiation success
Negotiation research demonstrates that displays of empathy build pro-social behaviour. This is so important for negotiation success. Conversely, lack of empathy can result in anti-social behavior negatively impacting the negotiating parties’ relationship.
So how can we show empathy? Interpersonal skills such as openness, empathic listening and paraphrasing are a good start. Effective negotiators use such ’signals’ especially in the early introductory ‘hello’ phase. This is very important in hostage negotiations and many selling negotiations, and mergers & acquisitions negotiations, have a ‘hostage’ element!
The good news is that research shows empathy can be trained. The benefit is you may be able to better understand the other party’s perspective and so gain the most beneficial concessions.
Tips for Developing Empathy
1. Recognize and identify emotions
Being empathic means you are able to recognize the other party’s emotions and inexperienced negotiators are less adept at this. To identify another’s emotions it helps if you can easily identify your own. Make it a habit to monitor how you are feeling: nervous, angry, frustrated, stressed, happy, sad? Then it becomes easier to identify another’s emotions using the following skills.
2. Be aware of nonverbals
Identifying emotion is helped by reading body language. Particularly look for discrepancies between the other party’s words and their body language and note changes in tonality.
3. Employ skillful questioning
It’s hard to understand the other party and you can’t empathize with their concerns unless you ask them. Do this by creating the right information gathering and sharing atmosphere using open-ended questions. These are the ‘how…?’, ‘what…?, ‘why…?’, ‘where…?’, ‘when…?, ‘which…?’ and ‘who…?’ types of questions. They usefully signal your interest in the other party’s response.
Avoid using closed-ended questions, usually answered with a one word ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These can cause the other party to feel defensive and to close down.
4. Actively listen to understand
Asking the right open-ended questions is a good start. To demonstrate empathy requires that you express a sincere interest in the other’s responses and try to fully understand their viewpoint. Genuineness and sincerity are critical. Most of us recognize when ‘empathy’ is used manipulatively to get information. You need to show a keen interest in the other’s concerns. Listen very attentively.
5. Remain neutral
When listening, it is hard to really hear another’s views without agreeing or disagreeing. Passing judgment is the enemy of empathizing; get into the other’s mindset and determine how it makes sense for them. Separate facts from feelings.
6. Demonstrate your understanding
Showing you understand the other’s concerns without judging is expressing empathy.
You need to:
- Nonverbally show you are listening (attentive eye contact, head nod, smile)
- Verbally show you are listening (“Mm-hmm”; “I see”; “Really”; ”Right”)
- Encourage them to continue (“Go on…”; “And then…”; “Tell me more…”)
- Use reflective questioning and summarizing techniques (“So, what you feel/think is…”)
- Show you understand both the facts and the feelings expressed
- Match your experience with theirs (“If I were in your shoes, I would feel the same way…”)
As you demonstrate empathy, enjoy observing how others empathize with you.