The Secret to Smart Negotiations Is Simply Empathy

UPDATED: September 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 11, 2022
The Secret to Smart Negotiations Is Simply Empathy

Many people, when they hear about hostage negotiations, shake their heads and say, “Why don’t they just shoot the guy?” But while fighting might end things quickly, it doesn’t end things well.

We do the same thing in our personal relationships. When things go sideways, our first response is often to yell and argue versus discuss and negotiate. 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—and nobody wants to look stupid. So, Dennett explains, we set up a situation where learning is equivalent to losing.

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

But can’t fighting ever work? Sure it can. If your boss shouts, for example, 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.

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 sadly, in many situations with the people we love, nothing concrete is going to get resolved.

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, 69% 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, so that even when these things don’t resolve the issues, the marriage can still 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,” 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.

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 make both parties happier with the results. 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.

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. This article was published in May 2017 and has been updated. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock

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.