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Empathy in Negotiation - Good or Bad?

"I often get asked, 'Are you an empathetic or assertive negotiator?' especially after someone has read the most recent publication on negotiation." Yet, the real question should be whether you have the flexibility to adapt your approach to your counterpart. Many negotiation gurus have compared good negotiation to a great jazz ensemble. A jazz musician listens intently to their fellow musicians, adjusting their melodies and rhythms to the ebb and flow of the group. Similarly, the most effective negotiators can empathize, assert themselves, and adapt to the nuances of the conversation.


Executives sharing a coffee (in watercolor)
Empathy in Negotiation

Empathy in Negotiation


Empathy involves truly understanding your counterpart’s perspective, knowing their viewpoint, and communicating this understanding in a non-judgmental manner. It's more than nodding or mirroring. This depth of understanding goes beyond simply recognition; it involves actively placing yourself in the other person's shoes, capturing the core of their values, fears, and aspirations. Being able to do so builds rapport and trust, both essential for successful negotiations.


Win Big with Empathy in Negotiation


Leveraging empathy in negotiation significantly enhances the potential to expand the value on the table. When one party desires 'x' and the other is inclined towards 'y', it doesn't necessarily imply that these wants have to be sourced from a limited, fixed set.


Through empathetic listening and understanding, negotiators can often uncover alternative avenues or resources to fulfill those desires.


On the other hand, competitive negotiators who are fixated on a win-lose approach often overlook these opportunities. By failing to truly listen and understand the underlying needs and interests of their counterpart, they inadvertently limit the scope of value extraction, leaving potential mutual benefits unexplored.


Is there such a thing as too much empathy in negotiation?


Just like anything else, too much of a good thing is usually...well...too much. Lean too much towards empathy, and you risk forgoing your own needs. Tilt too heavily towards assertiveness, and you may alienate or overpower your negotiation counterpart. The magic lies in harmonizing these two approaches.


Bringing Empathy to the Negotiating Table


Before joining a negotiation, it's critical to introspect and assess your natural approach to conflict. Does competition excite you, pushing you to assertively make your point? Or do you lean towards accommodation, emphasizing empathy and understanding? Or do you tend towards avoidance, evading the issue altogether. Recognizing your own tendencies can provide you with insights on how you might react during prime time.


By understanding how you might instinctively react, you can start the process of replacing potentially counterproductive strategies with more fruitful ones. Take some time to do some self reflection.


Practicing empathy


Empathy thrives on active listening. One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate empathy during a negotiation is to ask your counterpart to share their perspective before you present yours. This gesture signifies respect and a genuine interest in understanding their position.


As they speak, listen intently, free from judgment. For those of us who are competitive, it will serve us well to remember, understanding is not synonymous with agreement. It's possible to comprehend someone's viewpoint without necessarily concurring with it. This distinction is essential, allowing you to retain your stance while building rapport with your counterpart.


Every negotiation will bring to light different issues, each demanding its unique blend of empathy and assertiveness. Some situations might call for profound empathetic understanding, while others may require a more assertive stance. There might even be instances where both approaches are needed simultaneously.


The best negotiators don't bind themselves to a single style; instead, they read the room, understand the players, and adjust their approach to create the right harmony. By mastering the balance, you not only secure the best outcome for yourself, you also create respect and long term relationships.


Salary negotiations are high-stakes conversations and most individuals will shy away from them because of the potential for conflict. It's important to remember that conflict is not inevitable. See how Alex handles her pay raise discussion.


Alex, an employee at A-Corp for three years, believes she's due for a raise based on her contributions and market research on industry salary standards. She schedules a meeting with her manager, Chris, to discuss this.


Alex: "Chris, I appreciate the opportunity to sit down with you today. Over the past three years, I've taken on increased responsibilities and have consistently met or exceeded our team's KPIs. I've done some research, and it appears that my current compensation is below the industry standard for our region. I'd like to discuss a possible adjustment."

[Alex starts with an assertive but respectful approach, presenting her case and indicating her intentions clearly.]


Chris: "Thanks for bringing this up, Alex. I recognize the hard work you've put in. Can you share more about the research you've done?"

[Chris shows empathy in the negotiation by acknowledging Alex's contributions and expressing an interest in her perspective.]


Alex: "Of course. I looked into salary ranges for similar roles in our industry and found that the median salary is about 15% higher than what I currently earn. I've also taken a few courses recently to upskill, which adds to my value here."

[Alex continues with her assertive stance by presenting evidence and reasons.]


Chris: "I appreciate the initiative you've taken, both in your role and in your research. Let's review these numbers. The company has its metrics and pay bands, and we cannot veer from those."

[Chris shifts from an empathetic acknowledgment to a more assertive position by introducing the company's perspective.]


Alex: "I completely understand the company has its considerations. From my end, it's about ensuring that my compensation reflects both my contributions and the market rate."

[Alex blends empathy (understanding the company's position) with assertiveness (stating her feelings and needs).]


Chris: "I hear you, Alex. And I value your contributions to our team. I need to discuss this with HR and crunch some numbers. However, I'm optimistic we can find a mutually acceptable solution."

[Chris is empathetic to Alex's feelings and concerns but also implies that a resolution could be possible.]


Alex: "Thank you, Chris. I appreciate your willingness to discuss this and find a solution that acknowledges my growth and reflects current market standards."

[Alex stands firm on her request, respectful and with the right balance of appreciation.]


If you are ready to ask for a pay raise, swipe this full script here - it's Free!


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