September 17, 2017

Why Empathy is the Secret to Negotiating.


It’s a soft, fuzzy word we’re more likely to associate with social workers than the high-stakes world of international hostage negotiation. But for Chris Voss, the former head of the FBI’s international kidnap and hostage negotiation team, “tactical empathy” was his number one tool.

“Hostage negotiation is like emotional intelligence on steroids,” says Voss. “Most of us avoid negotiation because we’re hard-wired to fear confrontation. We imagine conversations going down negative paths and tend not to give others a chance, or don’t hear the opportunities they give us.”

Voss is on a mission to teach people how embracing negotiation can make you a better partner, employee, and parent.

Many of the techniques he learned with the FBI (outlined in his bestselling book Never Split the Difference) are simple, but they work like Jedi mind tricks because they go against what we’d ordinarily do.

For example, what is the best way to gain trust and eventually influence someone? Simply “shut up and listen.” Not “listen for points we can argue against,” but put aside our agenda and listen with an open mind.

“Counterintuitive skills are necessary to gain a competitive edge,” Voss says. “Once anyone begins to see the huge tactical advantage listening makes, they really get into it.”

The following are tools to understanding how to bring empathy into the negotiations we deal in our lives.

>> Let your ego be the first casualty.

Successful negotiation, Voss contends, hinges on our ability to surrender our need to be “right.”

“An assertive [personality type] will initially have trouble listening because “I want control and I’ll feel out of control if I’m not talking.” Once they realise their ability to make a deal by not talking and giving the other side a chance to talk themselves part way there, they love it. It’s actually less work.”

But empathising with people who trigger us (partner, boss, or teenage-banshee-offspring) isn’t always easy.

“Listening is hard for everyone,” Voss explains. “As soon as you begin to make an effort to listen you wake up to how many people don’t do it. It becomes frustrating.”

“In some ways, it’s easier to empathise with a Haitian kidnapper than our own family,” he says. “That Haitian kidnapper didn’t steal attention from us during family gatherings when we were kids. So, our buttons aren’t pushed because old wounds aren’t being reopened. But it becomes a challenge with a terrorist if their actions seem to be attacking values we hold personally.”

>> Understand that emotions fuel negotiations—not logic.

“We are all crazy, irrational, impulsive, emotionally driven animals. Instead of denying or ignoring emotions, good negotiators identify and influence them,” writes Voss. “A surprisingly high percentage of negotiations have more to do with self-esteem, statusand other non-financial needs.”

In order to “hear the need under the need,” we have to let go of our internal commentary (“If they say this, I’ll say that”) and listen. Why? Because when people feel heard, we disarm them and make them feel safe. And that’s when we are in a position to influence them.

>> Labelling.

Reflect what we’ve heard in a non-judgemental way. Paraphrase key points, and remember we don’t have to agree with someone in order to show them that we understand.

Non-judgemental labeling (“It sounds like you don’t want to go back to jail” or “It seems like you’re frustrated about our progress,”) brings the emotion to the surface and diffuses it.

Labelling also works the other way—by labeling all the bad things someone might think about us (“I know it looks like I’m being harsh”) we can neutralise them.

>> “No” is the beginning of the negotiation—not the end.

When people say “no” it makes them feel safe, says Voss. But sometimes “no” just means “I need more information” or “I don’t trust you yet.”

>> Listen out for the “Black Swans.”

“Black Swans” are vital pieces of information that have the power to turn negotiations if only we knew what they were, says Voss. It may be a hidden fear or desire. It may be that they’re operating on false information. It may even be their worldview. Voss uses the example of realising, mid-negotiation, that his counterpart was a devout Christian, and introducing biblical language into his speech as a way to create rapport, which worked for his ability to connect with him.

>> Bonus FBI Jedi mind trick.

Be a mirror. “Be a mirror?” Repeating the last three words your counterpart said not only invites them to elaborate—and perhaps inadvertently reveals information we can use as leverage—but it also makes them feel like we’re on the same page.

“My hands are tied.”

“Your hands are tied?”

“Ok, they’re not really, I just don’t want to give it to you because of X.”

“Let’s talk about X.” 

(Yes, it a simplification, but the technique is bizarrely effective. Try it!)

>> Calibrated questions: “how” and “what.”

“Once you figure out where you want a conversation to go, design questions to ease the conversation in that direction while letting the other guy think it’s his choice to take you there.” Voss writes.

If they’re asking for something we can’t or don’t want to give (“A million dollars now or he dies!”) a “how” or “what” question will buy us time, make the other person feel in control, and often ends up getting them to solve the problem for us.

“How am I supposed to do that?” Delivered in a non-confrontational way implies we want what they want, but need their help. Also try, “What about this is important to you or doesn’t work for you?” or “How can we find a solution?”

>> Bend reality.

A fun way of saying “frame the negotiation.” Anchor their emotions with low expectations. “I’m sorry, you’re not going to like it” sounds ominous, so whatever we say after that can only be a step up.

In salary negotiations, establish a range (“55K to 57K”) with your real number at the bottom. Use odd numbers (they sound precise and based on complex calculations) to negotiate terms, not just money. Pushing for more holiday time may make the salary increase instead (or we might just get more holiday time. Still a win!)

>> Second bonus Jedi mind trick.

Negotiations stalled? Next time we can’t get someone to reply to our email, try a straight, “Have you given up on this project?”

It feels uncomfortable at first but according to Voss, it plays on our counterpart’s natural loss aversion and encourages them to explain themselves. I tried it last week after months of emails failed to yield a response. The person responded within two hours, full of apologies and a plan for next steps.

These techniques may sound like manipulation. But if we do them with empathy, open our minds, and truly listen to others all in the name of self-interest then they can be used for good, proper communication and negotiation.



Author: Alice Williams
Image: Wikimedia
Editor: Taia Butler 
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell 

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