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Using empathy to your tactical advantage

Thursday, April 4, 2019 - 07:00
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Last month, in “Lessons we can learn from an FBI negotiator,” March 2019, we discussed tactics from Chris Voss, former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI. Is his book, Never Split the Difference, he provides practical advice that anyone can incorporate into their business role or life.

We first delved into mirroring last month, and now let’s learn more about another method that can help you create a win-win negotiating style and encourage you to add this book to your must-read list for 2019.

Voss explains the next step in successful negotiating is using Tactical Empathy. He defines this as understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and hearing what is behind those feelings. We all have a desire to feel the other side is listening and acknowledging our situations. We can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes without agreeing with them. We may think they are ludicrous. However, by acknowledging them, they may tell us something that we didn’t know that can help lead to a successful negotiation. In addition, neuro science shows that negative emotions are dispersed simply by calling them out. A tactical application might say, “It seems like you are frustrated.” This tells them you acknowledge their frustration and triggers them to talk about why they are frustrated without asking why. If you were to ask, “Why are you frustrated?” that signals to their brain to put up defenses and you are trying to tell them they are wrong.  

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Another principle I found extremely insightful is we should always start the negotiation with getting the other person to say “No.” What? How can that be? We want them to say “Yes!” Voss points out that getting them to say yes right away is a trap and makes the other person feel manipulated and ultimately there will not be a deal. Instead, he suggests asking open-ended, calibrated questions that allows them to say no immediately. This makes the speaker feel safe and in control and continues the conversation. Let’s look back at the third question I asked the insurance adjuster in the example on mirroring; it was a calibrated question that required a “No” for the answer.  One of the most compelling examples of this was when Ronald Reagan used this tactic in his speech just prior to winning the US presidential election in 1980. He asked the American people “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Then, he included a series of other questions in that same manner during his speech.   

When you are negotiating you may think you want to hear “You’re right” from your counterpart. But according to Voss, you do not want to hear that. Voss explains when someone says “You’re right,” they are simply trying to get you to shut up and go away.  The goal should be instead to hear “That’s right.” The difference in these phrases are only one word, but the meaning and impact for the negotiations are quite different.  When somebody says “That’s right,” they are telling you they feel understood. Science shows there is a chemical change that takes place in our brain when this happens and now their brain is willing to listen. There will be less resistance and a much better chance to a successful negotiation.   

Keep in mind during a negotiation, there could be things to go on the table if you give them the chance to be put there. So, let them talk first. Let them feel that they are in control, understand how to get them to talk more, show tactical empathy, make them feel understood, repeat back to them what they said, be patient, and look for a win-win solution.    

To find out more about Chris Voss and his book Never Split the Difference, visit  

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