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3 Principles That Make Empathetic Negotiation Tactics Truly Authentic (and Effective)

empathetic negotiation tactics

Do empathetic negotiation tactics like answering a question with a question or labeling your counterpart’s emotions get you what you want? Absolutely! Until it backfires.

The problem with negotiating with tactics alone is that without principles to guide you, you risk becoming the manipulator. You may not manipulate consciously. You may even get what you want, but as soon your counterpart walks away from the conversation and thinks, “Wait, what just happened?” They’ll feel tricked. All the “rapport” and “empathy” you worked so hard to build will evaporate in nanoseconds. Your “deal” might still hold, but you’ve damaged the relationship because your “deal” is a house hammered together without a plan on a foundation made out of quicksand. 

This happened in a conversation I had with someone versed in empathetic negotiation tactics. They used tactics on me, and at the time we thought we had a good conversation. When I walked away, I realized the problem was not understood and we didn’t have a real solution. I felt manipulated even though I know they didn’t do it intentionally or in a malicious way. Their goal was to make me feel like we were on the “same side” so that I would feel “good” about agreeing with their terms (which didn’t include actually solving the problem.)

Empathy works wonderfully if you have a genuine desire to solve the problem. Imagine if you felt understood by someone who wanted you to feel that way so they could get what they wanted, but they had no desire to solve your problem. Would you feel betrayed? Betrayal is much harder to come back from than any other emotion. Empathy is powerful. And like Peter Parker’s uncle said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” 

That’s why a lot of “empathetic negotiation tactic” advice is dangerous. If you don’t support tactics with guiding principles, you risk becoming the manipulator. You must negotiate authentically and with a genuine desire to construct a meaningful solution for both of you. Authenticity is not negotiable. This isn’t just about being a good person (though that should be enough), this is about pragmatism. Because building a deal that’s like a haphazard house on a foundation of quicksand, isn’t just a waste of time, it’s dangerous and it works against you.

Here are three principles that we use at the Empathary to help stay focused on achieving your ultimate goal without sacrificing authenticity.

Negotiate to solve a problem, not fight a battle.

Most people try to cut to the solution right away, and that’s what causes the battle dynamic.  It’s probably one of the hardest communication habits to break. Especially for people prone to focus on solutions and people who value directness. Which are great qualities, they just need to be applied skillfully, because they can make conversations harder than they need to be.

For example: Robin has been burning the candle at both ends, working all day and then going on to cook and clean for the family. 

“Can you please pick up some of the chores?” Robin makes a solution focused request.

“I can’t, I’m tired,” Adrian says, feeling unappreciated for contributing financially to the household.

“I’m tired, too. You never cook or clean!” Robin snaps back, feeling the need to convince Adrian that the housework is unfair. 

This is a battle many people know. But, what’s really going on here? Two people defend their “sides,” both overwhelmed with the demands of life. It seems like the easy option is to figure out who is right and who is wrong, but the reality is that whoever is “wrong”  will have resentment towards the “right” person. Is that a good way to build a relationship?

If you aim to solve a problem, that changes the whole dynamic of the conversation. You don’t want to assign blame, you want to collaborate solutions. 

This works because everyone comes to a negotiation because they have a problem to solve. Though the “problem” might not be obvious, you can discover possibilities by asking “why” a few times. 

  • You want a raise. Why? Because you want to progress your career.  Why? Because you want to achieve the life goal of owning a home. 
  • You want a date night with your partner. Why? Because the two of you have been falling into a rut lately. Why?  Because you haven’t been prioritizing the relationship.
  • You want to negotiate a better deal for your client. Why? Because you want your clients to refer you. Why? Because you want to grow your business efficiently. 

So in the example conversation, instead of Robin opening with a predetermined solution, Robin could explain the problem, “Hey, my days are really long and I’m overwhelmed. I wake up at 6am and don’t get a moment to rest until 9pm at night. If something doesn’t change, I won’t be good for anything.”

This invites Adrian to solve the problem. In reality, it would likely take a few conversations, but treating the situation like a problem to be solved creates a collaborative environment.

Understanding your counterpart is more persuasive than effective them.

Have you ever tried to convince someone of something and no amount of facts or reason or logic could move them? There’s a reason for that. Once you start trying to convince someone of something, the underlying message of the conversation says, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” 

Do you like being wrong? There are some people who enjoy being proven wrong, but the rest of us mere mortals have issues around making mistakes. Some people feel embarrassed, or stupid, or ashamed when they hold a wrong belief… and most people will do anything to avoid feeling that way, including doubling down, even to their last dying breath. In South Dakota, where coronavirus-denial ran rampant, an ER nurse reported patients saying as they were dying from the coronavirus, “This can’t be happening. It’s not real.”

If death doesn’t motivate people to consider new information, what will?

Understanding their point of view will motivate them. You don’t have to agree with their point of view, but by giving a person the chance to elaborate on how they arrived at a particular conclusion opens the conversation. Besides, it may open your mind to new ideas and creative solutions. 

This principle works in all kinds of conversations. I wanted to reduce my car insurance premiums, and the agent told me that I couldn’t unless I reduced my coverage. Instead of threatening to leave for another provider, I asked her questions about how the rates work. As she was explaining, one of the factors they consider is how much a person drives. Since I had reduced my daily driving by 60 or 70%, we realized we could reduce the premium. I ended up saving $240 per year from that conversation. More than the other insurance provider offered and saved me the headache of switching insurance, all because I tried to understand the process.

Pay attention to emotions, they tell you what matters.

A lot of older negotiation books will tell you to be “dispassionate” in a negotiation. In reality, that’s impossible. Just because someone isn’t screaming and shouting, doesn’t mean emotions aren’t driving their behavior. Because of the Fundamental Attribution Error, many people will view emotions triggered by a situation as a character flaw. “That person is so angry, they must be crazy!” That line of thinking is a huge missed opportunity. If instead, people sought to understand why that person is angry, and what is so important to them, they would find a solution to the problem. 

Emotions can guide you to the heart of a situation much faster than picking apart “rational” arguments. People don’t try to solve problems unless there is a pain point bad enough to warrant change. Frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, restlessness, are all indicators that something needs to change. These emotions lead you directly to the problem. 

The solution on the other hand, lies in the positive emotions driving the negative. Every negative emotion is driven by a positive. Have you ever been scared of losing something you don’t care about? Have you ever felt angry about something that meant nothing to you? 

Identifying the positive drivers behind a negative emotion helps deepen the sense of understanding in a conversation. Most of the time, if someone is upset, they don’t feel good about being upset. They may feel embarrassed or misunderstood. If you can pinpoint the positive reason for their feelings, it makes them feel understood. You also reinforce their positive feelings. 

The other day, I was talking with a friend who was upset and ruminating on a problem. I said, “That sounds so frustrating. I know you’re working really hard to keep things together.” Almost immediately their voice changed. “Yeah. I am.” Then, instead of focusing on being 

upset, we focused the conversation on how to “keep things together.” We focused on what mattered to them. 

Give these principles a try in your next conversation. Let us know if or how it changed the way you think about negotiations.

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