Ambassador Dennis Ross, Chief Middle East peace negotiator during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies, has an “empathy rule” in his negotiations. “To gain the hardest concessions,” he writes in Statecraft, “prove you understand what is important to the other side… (and know) why certain concessions are so painful for it.”
How can you effectively express empathy in a negotiation, step into your counterpart’s shoes and use this to help gain significant concessions?
1. Ask questions – especially open-ended ones.
You can’t empathize and understand your counterpart and their most difficult concerns unless you ask about them. And you’re not going to get to the heart of these issues unless you create the right information gathering and sharing atmosphere.
A big part of this involves using open-ended questions and phrases like what, how, where, why, tell me about, describe and explain. These types of questions and phrases are critical because they send the signal that you’re truly interested in your counterpart’s response.
Closed-ended questions, by contrast, often make your counterpart feel defensive and more likely to clam up. Closed-ended questions necessarily elicit a one-word yes or no response, like “isn’t it true you were on your cell phone when you hit that cab?”
2. Sincerely listen to understand.
Asking the right questions is a good first step. But to truly demonstrate empathy, you must be sincerely interested in your counterpart’s responses and seek to fully understand their perspective.
Sincerity is critical. If you simply view empathy as a manipulative way to get information it probably won’t work. In my experience, most people pick up on this. Importantly, genuinely seeking to understand your counterparts’ concerns also comes across.
3. Demonstrate an understanding of the details.
Don’t just scratch the surface of their concerns. Master them and then specifically articulate them back to your counterpart. Use phrases like “Let me make sure I fully appreciate what you’re saying…” and “I think I understand what you’re expressing. Is it ….” and “if I were in your shoes I would probably feel the same way and want to …”
Drilling down on your counterpart’s concerns and issues shows them how much you care. This is far more effective and convincing than just saying “I understand.”
4. Use this to create reciprocal expectations of concern and concessions.
Demonstrating empathy is not just an exercise in being nice. Instead, expressing it should be accompanied with an expectation that the other side reciprocate and fully appreciate your concerns.
Only then will such mutual understanding create an environment in which the parties can more easily and seriously consider and make the major concessions that flow from their concerns.
Fully appreciating how difficult it is for your counterpart to make a serious concession helps them make that move. That’s a major reason why empathy is a critical skill in negotiations.
Published September 10, 2009 The Arizona Republic