Working as a personal trainer, one of the first things I learnt was the importance of communication and empathy. When a decision to change has already been made, conversations with clients are straightforward. Next steps can flow quickly, as we uncover motivations and agree goals. If we can set a goal, then we can make an effective plan.

But sometimes you’re in a situation where views clash. How do we start the conversation then, and work together? 

As COVID struck last year I was fortunate to find inspiration in the work of Chris Voss, a former lead hostage negotiator and siege-breaker for the FBI. He now teaches people and organisations how to avoid conflict and reach better agreements. 

Developing some new rules

Chris writes about how the early 1970s saw a number of kidnappings end with tragic consequences. One in particular, the Downs Airline hijacking, led to a US law that changed the landscape for negotiators forever. Old-school use of force went out the window, and the FBI started to develop the techniques we see today. 

The new style hinged on the principle that siege-like hijackings are more about emotions than rational bargaining. It’s often fruitless to ‘play hardball’ or use ‘good cop, bad cop.’ Instead, rapport must be built – the FBI called it ‘trust-based influence’.

The wrong way to manage conflict

Many of us have an upside-down view of negotiation. From Hollywood films and TV shows, we’re fed the idea that it’s all about strength and sticking to your guns. In this way of thinking, being flexible or agreeing to an adversary’s wishes is seen as weakness. But reaching a lasting agreement or managing conflict actually needs plenty of sensitivity. It relies on understanding someone else’s motives and emotions.

Tactical empathy

The best negotiators rely on emotional intelligence to win deals and improve relationships. This is one of the key things that experts like Chris Voss teach us. He invented the phrase ‘tactical empathy’ to describe how to work with your counterpart’s emotions. Building it into your negotiating style will help you get better results, whether it’s in a business deal or a family debate about how to eat more healthily.

You can also think of tactical empathy as taking a stock-check from the person you’re talking to. What do they like or dislike about an idea, and why? Is that everything? Understand this and play it back to them, calmly. You can understand their points without necessarily agreeing with them.

After all, we all hold different views of any situation we are trying to address, and often have different information. Think of the situation as the adversary, not your counterpart. Instead, you’ll work together with them to find a shared solution.

Using tactical empathy in your negotiations

There are many things in the ‘tactical empathy’ toolbox. All of them will build good faith and give the other person a sense of control. The goal is to identify what they actually need and get them feeling safe enough to talk, talk and talk some more.

Here are five that can be used in everyday communication:

Focus only on the other person and what they have to say. Good listening is not a passive activity, and needs concentration. When you have a response, ask a simple question to confirm and then wait. Use active listening followed by dynamic silence – it builds rapport, too. It isn’t only the voice we should think about. Be sure to follow gestures, the use of hands, body and facial expression. They’re there to overcome barriers, like impaired hearing and lack of a common language. In these situations, if you are not observing and paying very close attention then their message will be lost.

Start out with a mindset of discovery. At the beginning, your goal is to find out as much information as possible. Assume you know very little. Chris Voss says that really smart people are sometimes poor negotiators because they don’t think they have anything to learn.

Label emotions – don’t suppress them. When you spot someone’s feelings, find the word and respectfully repeat it back to them. “It sounds like this has made you feel frustrated…”. This is called labeling, and it’s a great way to improve your listening. There is no way to cut people’s feelings out of the process, so it’s foolish to try. 

Use calibrated questions. These begin with ‘How?’ or ‘What?’ and they are valuable for two reasons. First, they avoid the yes/no answers that give you little extra information. Second, they force your counterpart to help think about your problems in a co-operative way. For example, “What else would you be able to offer to make that work for me?”

Stay humble. Remember that we all hold different views of the same problem. And we often have different information, too. If at least one of you has the humility to know this, you’ll likely have a good outcome. Great negotiation is about great collaboration and creating influence based on trust.

Tactical empathy works for an age-old reason. We are complicated creatures, and at root always an animal. Whatever our age, background, education or outlook, we first act from our fears, needs, and desires. This is our limbic system kicking in, the part of the brain involved in our  behavioural and emotional responses. 

Plugging into this system has always worked better than appeals to our reason, and probably always will. So try to magnify those positive emotions. After all, people are smarter when they’re in a positive frame of mind – and so are you.

Learn more

Video: Never Split The Difference

Book: Never Split the Difference