Learning & Development

How Empathy Works When Negotiating

Empathy and negotiations don’t seem to go hand in hand. Many people view negotiations as zero-sum, confrontational battles between adversaries.


That is sometimes the case, but business negotiations shouldn’t end up in a shouting match. Negotiators can use many tools to support their positions without resorting to negativity or hostility. Empathy is a great example.

Negotiation Is for Everyone!

First, it’s important to point out the broad relevance of this post. Negotiations aren’t just for attorneys and top executives haggling over multimillion-dollar deals. Employees at all levels of an organization negotiate with customers, colleagues, superiors, subordinates, and suppliers, to name a few. They also negotiate for time off or pay raises from their boss.

Company staff negotiate acceptance of performance and timelines with customers, and teammates negotiate division of labor and responsibility among themselves.

So how does empathy play into these or other negotiations?

How Empathy Comes into Play

Having empathy for one’s negotiation counterpart is important, but for this post, we’re talking about prompting empathy in one’s counterparts. In an article for Big Think, Derek Beres discusses an interview with former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and New York City Joint Terrorism Task Force negotiator Chris Voss.

Voss advocates for the power of a simple question in any negotiation: “How am I supposed to do that?” The question triggers what Voss calls “forced empathy.” In other words, it compels one’s counterpart to put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes.

Asking someone a question like “How am I supposed to do that?” prompts the person to answer that question, which, in turn, prompts him or her to think about how someone so situated would acquiesce to the request or demand.

How the ‘Empathy Question’ Works in Practice

For example, consider that it’s the holiday season, and Linda is asking Justin to complete a large assignment before leaving for his preplanned time off.

Justin explains his current workload and time constraints and asks Linda, “Given the amount of work I’m currently assigned and the time available to complete it, how am I supposed to complete the additional work you’re asking me to take on?”

This forces Linda to put herself in Justin’s shoes and potentially recognize that by asking to push some deadlines, Justin has limited bandwidth for additional work.

Regardless of their position in the organization, employees may find themselves in a negotiation at some point. Using tactics like forced empathy can help make counterparts more receptive to their arguments and strengthen their position.