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Do You Really Understand Empathy?

By |February 10, 2015

There is no question that the average person has some understanding of empathy. It would not be a surprise if your first instinctual reaction to the title of this article was “of course” or “yes I do.” Even if you weren’t sure, with technology today you could go to Google and look up empathy in a few seconds. This however doesn’t give a full understanding of what it means to be empathetic. What I really want to focus on is a true understanding of what it means to be empathetic and how to use empathy as a tool to improve your value, leverage and bargaining position in any negotiation. I don’t usually like to make guarantees, but for most I can promise by the end of this article you will have a better feel for what it means to really understand empathy.

The Black Swan Group also has its own definition of empathy which differs from what you will find in a dictionary. Black Swan defines empathy as not only the recognition of the counterparts world but also the vocalization of that recognition. In order to have a good grip on what empathy really is you need to be able to properly execute it and this is where we find that people fall short. Without the right training and reinforcement, people continue to use bad habits they have developed themselves consciously or even subconsciously picked up from others. The number one biggest mistake I see people making, high level executives included, is the saying “I understand” as a way to show empathy.

The use of “I understand” is an ineffective lazy shortcut way to attempt to use empathy. The first problem with the “I understand” phrase is that anyone who has had it used on them knows the person saying it is really saying “ok, stop, I get it, now be quiet so I can talk”. You know they don’t really get it which is why you keep circling around to the same issues ad nauseam. The second big problem is when you say “I understand” you take personal responsibility for what you say next. If you are wrong in what follows, it can have a detrimental effect on whatever ground you have covered so far or worse can negatively affect the relationship.

To properly execute the skill and reap the benefits of its power requires you to actually say the words that summarize their view of the world. This is even more effective when you know that their view holds you in a negative light because negativity is eminently predictable. Going through the effort it will take to fully summarize their position will take time and you might not even get it right the first try. Whether you are right or not, displaying a true attempt to understand will give you a tremendous amount of power in a negotiation and immediately sets a playing field for collaboration.

Empathy goes along with the whole idea of what we talk about in negotiation as “delaying to save time”. You are taking the time to focus on what the counterpart’s world looks like so that down the line you don’t have to circle back to the same issues. Now there are certain ways to continue to display empathy throughout the interaction and additional skills that when coupled with proper use of empathy that can truly make you an “ace in the hole” deal maker. That is what we do in our company. We teach and initiate exercises geared toward breaking bad communication habits and couple them with great skills for not only diagnosing your counterpart but engaging in the art of “letting them have your way”.