Leveling Off Assertiveness and Empathy Improves Negotiations
by Michael Heath
Just as people have different personalities, they also have different negotiation approaches. Chris Voss, who wrote Never Split the Difference, admits he has a more assertive negotiation style, i.e., he tends to be more of an advocator. On the other hand, I can be too nonconfrontational for my own good. A healthy combination of assertiveness and empathy make for the best negotiation.
Assertiveness – Advocating for one’s needs, interests, and perspective.
Empathy – Showing understanding of the other side’s needs, interests, and perspective, without necessarily agreeing.
Assertiveness Is a Good Thing
Assertiveness helps the other side comprehend what one wants. It defines goals, clarifies concerns, and elucidates desires. Assertiveness is the enemy of ambiguity. Laying out what one wants to achieve aids in understanding and can even speed up the negotiation. Assertiveness that is vigorous without coming across as pushy or threatening enhances deliberations. On the other hand, hard negotiators take extreme positions, seeing the discussions as a contest of wills where only winning is the aim. That mindset impedes creativity or stifles progress all together when the other side is compelled to take a protective stance by shutting down.
Empathy Is Not Sympathy
Empathizing in negotiation is not feeling bad for someone but an understanding of where the other side is coming from. This can be done even when not seeing eye-to-eye over an issue. When there is an understanding of the other side’s needs, interests, and perspective, necessary knowledge is gained. It is then that negotiations can move forward. Soft negotiators are averse to human conflict and tend to be too compromising. They could be afraid to state their goals, believing that doing so may come across as offensive. Not defining needs, interests, and perspective to the other side may cause the soft negotiator to feel they are in the process of being manipulated and thus will steer clear of a conclusion.
What to Do?
Assertive negotiators can sharpen their listening skills. Instead of focusing on how to respond they can make a special effort to pay attention to what is being said. Listening equals learning. It is often good to repeat what was just said (but not in a robotic way) so that the other side knows that they are dealing with someone who is actively listening. Empathetic negotiators can define ahead of time what their goal is, do homework, and even bring along notes. When both sides show up prepared to achieve results, imbalances of power decrease while increasing the chances of success.