The Secret to Smart Negotiations Is Simply Empathy

Many people, when they hear about hostage negotiation, shake their heads and say, “Why don’t they just shoot the guy?” But they don’t know the stats. When police launch an assault during a hostage situation, it’s the police who suffer the bulk of the casualties. Fighting might end things quickly, but the research shows it doesn’t end things well.

We do the same thing in our personal relationships. Things go sideways and often our first response is to fight. Not physical violence, but yelling and arguing versus discussing and negotiating. Why is this? Philosopher Daniel Dennett says it’s because a “war metaphor” is wired into our brains when it comes to disagreement. When there’s a war, someone is conquered. It’s not a discussion of facts and logic; it’s a fight to the death. No matter who is really right, if you win, I lose. In almost every conversation, status is on the line. Nobody wants to look stupid. So, Dennett explains, we set up a situation where learning is equivalent to losing.

Related: How to Ask for (and Get) Everything You Want

Even if you have rock-solid evidence and impeccable logic, and you back the other person into a corner, what happens? They might concede, but they definitely hate you. When we make it win-or-lose, everyone loses.

Research from neuroscience confirms this. When people are riled up about something and you show them evidence that conflicts with what they believe, the areas of their brain associated with logic literally shut down. The regions associated with aggression light up. As far as their brain is concerned, it’s not a rational discussion—it’s war. The brain can’t process what you’re saying; it’s just trying to win. Your head works the same way unless you make an effort to control it.

Can’t fighting ever work? Sure it can. Research shows if you have power and the other person doesn’t, intimidation can be very effective—in the short term. If your boss shouts, you probably back down. But what does this mean for the relationship? Bosses who do this too often aren’t going to have much luck retaining A-player employees with options. And it’s not enough to be the 500-pound gorilla; you have to stay the 500-pound gorilla. When you bully people, they remember it. And if you later lose power and they gain it, expect revenge.

After shifting their negotiation techniques throughout the years, crisis negotiators and heavily armed law enforcement realized the best solution: empathy. Domestic disputes and suicidal individuals don’t respond well to people who sound like salesmen. Being sincere and focusing on emotions, however, leads to effective resolutions.

In his research on the subject, Michael McMains found that police made three big mistakes when it came to dealing with crisis incidents: They made everything black and white, they wanted to solve things immediately, and they didn’t focus on emotions.

Related: 15 Negotiation Tips From People Who Always Get Their Way

You and I make the same mistakes. Granted, we’re not dealing with emotionally disturbed people. Actually, hold on. Often we are dealing with emotionally disturbed people; we just call them co-workers and family members. They’re not terrorists making demands (although sometimes it seems like that, too). Usually they’re just upset. They just want to be heard.

Hostage negotiators are dealing with the most intense situations imaginable but the attitude they take from beginning to end during a crisis is one of acceptance, caring and patience. Much like war, friendship is something we instinctively understand. Acceptance, caring and patience are great to focus on because in many situations with the people we love, sadly, nothing concrete is going to get resolved.

Relationship researcher John Gottman found that 69 percent of romantic couples’ problems are perpetual. They don’t get fixed. This is why a bargaining approach doesn’t work. We need to listen and relate and understand, and despite these things not working, marriages can thrive. When we just focus on the concrete bargaining and not the feelings, that’s when things fall apart.

We’ve all experienced the power of feelings. Being in a bad mood can make you a totally different person. Like when you get “hangry,” then you eat something and boom—all is right in the world again and you’re much more pleasant to deal with. One study showed food is an effective persuasion tool: “The consumption of proffered food induces a momentary mood of compliance toward the donor that is strongest at the time the food is being consumed and that decreases in strength rapidly after the food has been consumed.” We have a cheeseburger, we feel better, and we’re more likely to be in the right mood to close a deal.


The war model doesn’t work best for people in the “war” business, like law enforcement, and it won’t work for you.


Why is friendship such a powerful model for dealing with people, even in business? It comes down to what negotiators call “value creation.” When we’re stuck in bargaining mode, we’re always calculating costs and benefits in the short term. Without the loyalty and trust of friendship, the model is competitive by nature. We don’t want the other person to get more than we do. But when we treat the relationship like a friendship, we exchange more information and can explore new ways to meet each other’s needs. Something that’s cheap for you might be expensive for them, and vice versa. Instead of trying to get a bigger slice of a set pie, we can expand the pie for everyone. Happy people are better negotiators. When people feel positive about the deal-making process, they’re more likely to close a deal and both parties are happier with the results; and when we joke around like friends do, it builds trust.

Fighting only works when you’re by far the biggest and the strongest and will be certain to stay that way (which is much rarer than we tend to think). When fighting looks like the only solution, it’s usually better to just walk away. The war model doesn’t work best for people in the “war” business, like law enforcement, and it won’t work for you. The best results come from being a friend, listening and asking questions.

Related: How to Build Good Relationships


This article is adapted from Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong by Eric Barker. It is reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.


Eric Barker’s humorous, practical blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, presents science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life. Over 290,000 people subscribe to his weekly newsletter and his content is syndicated by Time, The Week and Business Insider. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly and The Financial Times. Eric is also a sought-after speaker and interview subject, and has been invited to speak at MIT, Yale, West Point, the University of Pennsylvania, NPR affiliates and on morning television.

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