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How to Use Tactical Empathy to Negotiate

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Many people have the notion that negotiation requires rhetorical strength and an unwillingness to be flexible or accede to your opponent’s wishes. While there is a place for a “good cop, bad cop” approach to the negotiation process, successful negotiations require a high degree of sensitivity and emotional intelligence. The art of negotiation rests on understanding your adversary’s motives and emotions and building trust.

Former FBI hostage negotiator and co-author of the bestseller Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss, coined the term “tactical empathy” to describe the process of trying to understand your opponent on an emotional level and using that understanding to your advantage.



Chris Voss Teaches The Art of NegotiationChris Voss Teaches The Art of Negotiation

Former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss teaches you communication skills and strategies to help you get more of what you want every day.

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What Is Tactical Empathy?

Chris Voss defines tactical empathy as the deliberate influencing of your negotiating counterpart’s emotions for the ultimate purpose of building trust-based influence and securing deals. The ways you employ your voice, labels, mirrors, and dynamic silence all contribute to tactical empathy.

As a former international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, Chris Voss understands what separates good negotiators from bad negotiators. Though many would like to think of business negotiation as a highly logical, cut and dry win-lose affair, research shows that there is no way to completely cut emotion out of the haggling process. It’s important to incorporate emotion as a negotiating tactic.

Though there is a time and a place to apply pressure and play hardball, the bottom line is that a successful negotiation, whether it be a salary negotiation or a hostage negotiation, is usually a collaborative problem-solving process with give-and-take and trade-offs on both sides of the table. The more that you can incorporate emotional intelligence and empathy into your negotiation training, the more likely you are to keep the tactical upper hand while still making your negotiating partner feel heard. Tactical empathy helps you achieve a win-win outcome.

How to Use Tactical Empathy in Negotiations

Tactical empathy encompasses a variety of negotiation strategies, all of which are designed to build good faith and give your negotiation partner the illusion of control. Effective negotiation rests on building at least the perception of mutual gains. Tactical empathy requires a variety of negotiation skills that enable you to work towards win-win outcomes. Some of the negotiating tactics that good negotiators use to employ tactical empathy include:

  • Demonstrate that you are negotiating in good faith. The idea is to show that you are not here to deceive or exploit the other side—sometimes showing deference can be key.
  • Be genuinely interested in what drives the other side. Understanding their goals, motivations, wants, and fears will help you navigate the negotiation effectively. An authentic connection with your negotiating partner will help lead to an optimal outcome for both parties.
  • Don’t suppress emotion. Negotiators used to assume that eliminating emotion from the process would create the most logical (i.e., best) outcome. But what we understand now through neurological research is that there is no way to cut people’s feelings out of the process. Nor is it desirable to do so. In reality, suppressing emotions—specifically negative emotions—will hurt the process.
  • Work to deactivate negative feelings. Try to dispel fear, suspicion, anger, aggression, and distrust. From a neurological standpoint, this means trying to defuse activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that houses those feelings. Watch your negotiation partner’s body language and tone to determine when they might be experiencing negative emotions.
  • Aim to magnify positive emotions. People are actually smarter when they’re in a positive frame of mind. Building trust, comfort, and rapport will help you accomplish your goals. By appealing to your counterpart’s emotions, you can build mutual understanding, influence, and—ultimately—deals.
  • Look for tells. We all have one way of telling the truth. If you can identify how your counterpart looks and sounds when he or she is being honest with you, then you’ll be able to detect any deviations from that pattern that may signal a lie.

Every day, business people in major cities all over the world are fighting for better outcomes in complicated high-stakes negotiations. Though negotiation tactics can be incredibly complex, the good news is that whether you are in New York or Shanghai, building tactical empathy into your negotiating process will give you the upper hand, regardless of the subject or location of your negotiations.


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