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Creating empathy – the first rule of negotiation

We carry out negotiations every day, whether at work or within our family and social relationships. Using empathy well is a vital part of how we negotiate our way through life.

In the words of the FBI’s former lead hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, “if you don’t create empathy with the hostage-takers, the hostages die.” How different this is to the approach many of my clients take, where both sides view negotiation as a battle of wills…where muscle-flexing is more important than empathy, understanding and problem-solving.

Family feuding!

I was able to share the important role of empathy in negotiation with a client, Michael, at just the right time. Michael, his siblings and their parents were involved in unpleasantness over the sale of a family property.  Things had been rumbling on for a year, but it was all coming to a head. Michael felt he was getting significantly short-changed and that the family were ganging-up on him, coercing him to concede.  This pre-occupation was badly affecting Michael’s performance at work.

He was on the receiving end of what is known as a fairness threat. He felt that he was being treated unfairly, triggering the amygdala’s freeze-flight-fight response – not very useful in a negotiation situation.

I explained to Michael that the brain is a social organ. The very success of the human species lies in its ability to collaborate. Empathy is a pro-social behaviour. It is received at an emotional level and helps build rapport and trust. The brain craves connection with others.  To reward and reinforce this, it releases dopamine and oxytocin which make us feel good, when those connections are made.

Number One Rule of Negotiation

 Creating empathy is the first rule of negotiation.  Help the other party get what they want, and ninety percent of the time this will be reciprocated.

Reciprocation is a key tool in influencing because it triggers the fundamental human value of fairness (represented in the orbitofrontal cortex). Charities exploit this by giving you a free gift, like a pen, in the hope that you will reciprocate with a donation.

However, our instinctive responses at the negotiation table when pushed are either to push back, further reinforcing entrenched positions (fight), or to concede (flight).  On a neuroscience level, if we look at what this looks like in the brain,  the amygdala instructs the hypothalamus to release stress-based neurotransmitters, cortisol and noradrenaline.  This creates a narrow self-preservation focus – great for escaping danger on the Savanna plains, but the last thing you want in relationship-based business negotiations!

On-line entrepreneur, Hanson Cheng writes: “In sales negotiations, the ability to empathise with the other party can be the difference between a successful sale and a lost opportunity.

Empathy allows sales professionals to understand the needs, wants, and desires of their prospects, and tailor their approach to meet those needs. This ability also creates a sense of trust and connection, which can help to overcome objections and ensure that the negotiation is coming from a place of mutual benefit.”

In sales negotiations, the ability to empathise with the other party can be the difference between a successful sale and a lost opportunity.

Shut up and listen

To create empathy you need to listen and ask questions, rather than to issue demands.  This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the other party, but make sure you don’t invalidate their perspective. Really listen to what they are saying.

Empathy and reciprocation work through emotional contagion. In the brain, our mirror neurons fire to create the same behaviours that we witness in others. Oxytocin increases empathy and care-giving, which, in turn, increases dopamine to reward these behaviours – a virtuous cycle.

However, oxytocin is a two-edged sword. It also creates mistrust and suspicion of the out-group.  This is why it is so critical to get the other party on board – alienate them at your peril!

Michael’s success

By listening and asking questions, rather than arguing back, Michael soon found out that some of his siblings had similar concerns to him. These only came to the surface once a discursive rather than combative style had been adopted.

Many negotiations fail because the all-important ‘discussion phase’ is skipped. Too often, we head straight for numbers and haggling.

By listening and empathizing with the needs of the rest of the family, Michael was able to achieve a resolution everyone was happy with.

But it doesn’t matter whether it is family or in business, being empathetic will improve your negotiating skills

This blog was originally published in 2019  and has been updated with additional quotes.

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