The Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu famously wrote that the “supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Using empathy at the negotiation table is the modern-day embodiment of this strategy. 

A fundamental human need is to feel accepted, validated, and understood by others. This reality means that negotiation strategy is really about psychology. To get from Point A to Point B, the skilled negotiator must exploit psychological principles – and this means empathy must play a role.

Many negotiators view empathy and sympathy interchangeably, and dismiss both as weak. Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy! The difference is subtle but critical. Listen for the difference:

  • Sympathy: “I understand how you feel. I feel terrible for you.”
  • Empathy: “I understand how you feel, and I understand why you feel that way.”

What’s the difference? Merriam-Webster defines sympathy as the “inclination to think or feel alike,” a “feeling of loyalty,” and the “tendency to favor or support” – in essence, agreement. Sympathy almost never has a place at the negotiation table. In the negotiation of a business deal or at settlement discussions, few clients would want to hear their lawyer say to their adversary, “I get it – I agree it’s terrible what you went through. So here’s the check you asked for.” The sympathetic negotiator may not be much of a negotiator.

But the empathetic negotiator approaches things differently. Consider the Merriam-Webster definition of empathy: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings thoughts, and experience of another.” The use of “vicariously” is critical here: unlike the sympathetic negotiator, the empathetic negotiator understands her adversary’s position, but doesn’t actually experience it or necessarily agree with it. Instead, she uses empathy to let the adversary know that she hears and understands him. By tuning into her adversary’s emotions instead of just the words, the empathetic negotiator shows that she “gets it,” which helps the adversary open up and share additional information that the empathetic negotiator can use to her advantage. Think, “I get it – I understand why you feel that way. So what if we…”

Think how much more effective a negotiator you can be if you understand what’s important to your opponent and the factors that got him there. Rather than taking a shot in the dark about what might work or keeping the focus solely on you (or your client), when you understand your adversary and use his own views to shape the conversation, you can strategize around that and go a lot further, a lot faster. 

Too many negotiators are hell-bent on appearing authoritative, unflinching – like the “tough guy,” willfully ignorant of the forces shaping the other side. But that’s an incredibly weak negotiation strategy. Using empathy as a tool to make your adversary keep talking and feel comfortable is key to letting the other side get what you want.