What is tactical empathy and how can it help in negotiations at work?

Two businesswomen negotiating.
Tactical empathy can be used in negotiations.
Image: Amy Hirschi/Unsplash
  • Chris Voss, a top hostage negotiator turned leadership coach, believes that negotiations entail trust and teamwork more than pinning an opponent to the ground.
  • Tactical empathy - “intentionally using concepts from neuroscience to influence emotions” - can be used as a core stratagem in navigating any type of friction.
  • Mirroring your counterpart, negotiating across cultures, and building relationships are all essential.

A negotiation is typically portrayed as a winner-take-all skirmish. Be it haggling for a higher salary, asking for a promotion, or closing a deal, the process might summon tactics, for example, from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Countless MBA courses and textbooks have taught us that business is a battlefield.

Ironically, Chris Voss, a top hostage negotiator turned leadership coach, has a different take. Years with the FBI, and later running a leadership training consultancy called the Black Swan Group, have taught Voss that negotiations entail trust and teamwork more than pinning an opponent to the ground. “I believe in a collaborative approach to conflict,” he says. “One definition of a confrontation is a focused comparison. If we start looking at stuff together, we both get an instinct that what we’re attacking is the problem.” In other words, pushing one’s agenda first entails understanding your counterpart’s motivations.

In a four-week MasterClass course titled “Win Workplace Negotiations,” Voss instead suggests tactical empathy—”intentionally using concepts from neuroscience to influence emotions”—as a core stratagem in navigating any type of friction. Helped by the Hollywood-caliber production value that MasterClass has made its signature, the resulting session is like a workplace training video that’s actually engrossing.

Chis Voss on MasterClass.
Voss suggests tactical empathy.
Image: QZ

Mirroring your counterpart to establish rapport

Tactical empathy requires demonstrating to your counterpart how deeply you’re listening to their words and, in effect, how thoughtfully you’re considering their position. One key tactic, called “mirroring,” entails echoing back one to three words the other person uttered, which Voss says can help build rapport from the outset.

Mirroring can also be a survival tactic for awkward networking events. Faced with a roomful of strangers, one can simply echo words and phrases to get them to open up. This simple practice can even turn idle chit-chat into meaningful conversations, Voss says. For instance, when a colleague shares something about their weekend, resist interjecting with a similar experience and probe theirs. If we can subvert the usual templates for workplace banter, we can foster a deeper understanding of our colleagues.

But in a heated confrontation, mirroring can help you “regain balance when you’ve been challenged or buy you time when you’re really flummoxed by what somebody said,” Voss says. Framing the other person’s words in the form of a question also gets them to try different terms, which helps clarify what’s at stake and gives you time to gather your thoughts.

For instance, your boss might say: “I need you to pull your weight better around here if we want this operation to survive.” Repeating the word, “survive” will likely lead your supervisor to elaborate on the pressure he or she is faced with.

And what if both parties are skilled at mirroring each other? Will it produce a stalemate? Voss doesn’t think so; instead, mirroring ultimately reveals the most important factors at stake, and the character of each party. “At some point, one of us is going to come come out of this dynamic and just flat out say, ‘Look, here’s here’s what I’d really like to do,’ ” he says. “Someone is going to step forward and offer something up because you’ve earned each other’s trust.”

Negotiating across cultures

Will this tactic work in when parties come from different cultures? What about with someone who uses silence as a power-maneuver? “Everybody on earth wants to know that they’re being understood and will open up when they feel they are listened to,” Voss argues. “The desire to connect and be understood is the basic layer that underpins everything.”

In designing his course for MasterClass, Voss used other Black Swan Group negotiation coaches as protagonists in various practice sessions. “Most of the poster children for negotiation are white males,” he says. “But other masters on my team will often put things in slightly different ways than I will, which just adds to the knowledge.”

Investing the time to build relationships

Sitting through many marathon stakeouts in his previous job, Voss has developed a fine appreciation for the long game. Mirroring and the other 11 negotiation tactics he teaches requires patience and practice. Before any big conversation, he suggests trying out these techniques with friends or even your kids.

Voss believes that the upfront time invested in building long-term trust will always pay off. “It’s a really subtle accelerator,” he explains. “The better the relationship gets the more a deal’s timeline gets accelerated. “

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