Want to Win (Anything)? That’s Going to Take True Empathy

UPDATED: August 18, 2016
PUBLISHED: August 18, 2016

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him,” says Andrew “Ender” Wiggin in the science-fiction novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. “I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

In other words, to be a true competitor, you also need to be truly empathetic. Although empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of others—has long been considered important for medical providers, therapists and teachers, more and more research shows cultivating empathy is key for more competitive pursuits, too.

Compassionate Competitor

Related: How to Be More Empathetic in Conversations

“Even as we fight wars, it is wise to keep an eye on the peace that will follow,” says Anthony Jack, Ph.D., who studies empathy as the principal investigator at the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “That takes true empathy… putting yourself in the shoes of the competitor.”

It even rings true in politics. Although most politicians’ rhetoric is naturally rooted in their own values, a 2015 study from the University of Toronto found that when liberals and conservatives make arguments from the moral standpoint of the other, they are more likely to persuade their opposition. The researchers presented participants with persuasive essays on issues such as same-sex marriage and universal health care. The liberal cause of Obamacare, for example, was championed in two ways: from a “fairness” point of view (health care is a right for all) and a “purity” one (sick people drain society, so sickness should be reduced). Conservatives who read the purity argument were much more likely to change their minds on the issue. To get others on your side, learn and understand their position first.

There is a biological glitch, however, when it comes to being an understanding competitor. Pivotal research from Jack found our brains are unable to be empathetic and rational at the same time. “When the neural network that supports empathy is on, the network that supports logical thinking is suppressed,” he says. The workaround: Get in the habit of asking yourself questions before taking action. How does my opposition feel? Are my feelings causing me to overlook facts? “Skilled leaders learn to switch rapidly between the two cognitive modes so they can see the situation from different perspectives.”

The ability to balance empathy and analytical thinking is a huge advantage in anything. Without this balance, in fact, negotiation is hopeless. It takes a large degree of mental juggling to exercise true empathy while still safeguarding yourself and your competitive advantage, Jack says. But the work is worth it. Negotiators who take the easier path of discounting and distrusting their competitors are much likelier to “engage in counterproductive behaviors that lead to poor outcomes,” according to a 2011 study from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore. If you’re having trouble connecting to the person on the other side of the table, the researchers concluded, it pays to take a break, try another approach, or call in a mediator who can better understand the needs of both parties.

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


This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.