I was running a course on empathy skills a few years back with a group of young doctors, when we were asked to vacate our room. So it was a cause for relief, and some celebration, when I managed to negotiate a larger room for us - including biscuits. And when it emerged later over coffee (and biscuits) that I was on the brink of leasing a gorgeous new car, something really caught the doctors' curiosity. Could there be a link between empathy and negotiation? Did my skills operate beyond biscuits - and if so, how far?
So when - by luck or judgement - I landed a rather splendid offer on the car deal, they naturally wanted to know more.
Last month, I found myself trading in that very car, and once again, I needed to stand my ground over money. This was hot on the heels of a different negotiation, this time with my bank, who had promised me an offer and then withdrawn it. Both were potentially awkward situations in which I might have been indignant, even outraged. Yet both interactions went smoothly; and I was left thinking of the young doctors and the empathy skills I had taught them.
It's a curious thing, even counter-intuitive, that empathy helps when we're 'standing up for our rights'. Even in the hard world of business and finance, when we have a clear sense of our own needs, it's empathy which really determines the direction the conversation takes. This forms the basis for a process I refer to in my courses as natural negotiation (Learn Negotiation).
The Human Factor
In the case of the car sales rep, he'd given me a price to conclude the lease agreement, but now his manager was adamant the sum was too low. I'd need to pay more, and that was that. But I believe in negotiation, so I phoned my original sales rep back. Naturally, he guessed there was trouble. Beneath his professionally friendly phone manner, he knew I wouldn't like what he had to tell me. It's hard for anyone to enjoy communication in those circumstances. Like most human beings, he felt bad saying 'no'.
Time with the other Person
So instead of arguing my case, I moved onto his ground.
'You're in a difficult position!' I offered, 'I don't envy you.'
'Too right!' he burst out, surprised perhaps that I wasn't yelling. And he went on to explain his first over-optimistic estimate and his manager's later revision.
Listening calmly, I could see the strength of his business argument (I really was getting a good deal at the lower price); and I could empathise with his professional position (silently, I wondered about his next performance review). Above all, he told me anxiously, he wanted his customers to be happy. That washis job satisfaction. I believed him, too. He was between a rock and a hard place. As I offered my simple empathic guesses, his relief was tangible.
The Jury is Out
I could empathise with him easily at that moment because I was confident of one important thing: I had not let go of my own needs. I had simply tucked them under my wing, out of sight, and given full reign to his. At this stage of the conversation, the jury was out. I truly didn't know if I would achieve the outcome I wanted, even though it was a significant one for me financially. Instead, my focus was on the friendly interaction that was emerging naturally as one person tried to understand another. No tricks, no games. Just understanding. And as I engaged in this way with the car salesman, another of my own key needs ignited, and slipped into gear: my wish for him to be okay too.
My 'Need for You'
When we are in good connection with folk around, we have a root human need to know that they are okay. So even if a conversation clashes with what we want for ourselves, a warm connection causes a shift in our intentions and motivations. We naturally begin to take in other people's needs and perspectives. In my case, I found myself sympathising with my car rep - the very guy who was trying to charge me more!
Stating My Agenda
Now it was easy to tell him my side. In this friendly atmosphere, he was happy to listen. I explained that I run my own business, and that I place a high value on keeping the agreements I make with my clients, even if that involves a mistake or a loss on my side. None of this was said to persuade. I was simply sharing my truth, my perspective.
So I was genuinely touched when he took up my cause, and went off to consult with his manager. As I was giving up my car completely, he had no motivation to retain me as a customer. It was sheer good will that was driving the negotiation. He came back enlivened and cheerful. His manager had agreed to the lower offer.
There's a paradox at the heart of communication. I have conversations which save me money, or bring me practical benefit. Yet (and here's the contradiction) the most satisfying feature is the interaction itself. That friendly connection with the car salesman; in the case of my bank (tiny individual takes on giant corporation!), the positive pride I felt as the bank manager really understood my values, and acted on them.
While our urban myths might propagate Mr Nasty as the best money-winner, I disagree. It isn't self-centred hard-headedness which really wins in negotiation. When empathy is present, negotiation happens naturally. That's another attitude altogether.