Mind Games: Crafting Creative Deals

Is understanding or empathizing more effective during negotiation?

By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Success at the negotiation table requires getting inside the head of your opponent, but not necessarily penetrating his heart. Considering someone else's thoughts is different from sharing in his emotions—the first process is called perspective taking, the second empathizing—and research reported in Psychological Science finds that the former will get you a better deal than the latter.

You're trying to buy a gas station—play along—and your max price is lower than the seller's minimum. But! You each have hidden bargaining chips. With a little back-and-forth, the seller reveals that he needs a job to finance a sailboat trip, and you note that you need to hire a manager. So you pay less than sticker price and hire the guy. A win-win. Adam Galinsky at Northwestern and his collaborators found that naturally perspective-taking MBA students, and those specifically asked to consider the seller's thoughts, uncovered this solution much more often than their classmates who empathized instead.

Empathy can build trust and cool emotional disputes, but "it really tips the balance too far in the direction of the other person's interest," Galinsky says.

If only one issue (say, price) is up for debate, perspective taking will get you a larger slice of the pie, Galinsky says, and where innovative agreements incorporating multiple elements (price and employment) are possible, "you're going to create value—expand the pie—and also get a good piece of it." —Matthew Hutson

On the Table

Adam Galinsky offers three tips for successful negotiations.

  • See both sides. Beforehand, think about your goals and alternatives. Then guess what those might be for the other side.
  • Go first. Make the initial offer, and make it aggressive. This will anchor the discussion in your favor.
  • Be inquisitive. Ask lots of questions about the other side's priorities. You'll get the best deal when everyone's happy.