To better understand other negotiators, consider the context

Perspective taking and empathy are very different skills, new research finds.

By on / Dealmaking

Imagine yourself in the following scenarios:

  • You are given the opportunity to choose between two colleagues to be your teammate on a lengthy negotiation. As part of your decision-making process, you contemplate which individual you will be likely to get along with best.
  • One of your children accuses you of siding with her brother in an argument. Believing her accusation is unfounded, you start to talk through the situation to find out why she feels this way.
  • As your consumer-goods company prepares to launch a cutting-edge new product, you establish an initiative to predict how your competitors are likely to react.

In each scenario, the importance of considering another party’s viewpoint rises to the forefront. To determine if you’d work well with colleagues on a negotiation, you need to think about how they feel about you. To better understand your daughter’s anger, you must get deeper inside her head. And to ensure a successful product launch, you have to analyze your competitors’ potential moves.

Negotiators are often counseled to engage in perspective taking and empathetic understanding to achieve better results, both for themselves and their counterparts. Yet consider that perspective taking and empathy are two different skills. Perspective taking is a cognitive ability that involves considering how other people think. Empathy, by contrast, involves emotionally connecting with others and experiencing sympathy and concern for them. Moreover, people who naturally take others’ perspectives may not be especially empathetic, and vice versa.

Are the two skills always useful in negotiations and other competitive interactions, or might one be more valuable—and the other a potential hindrance—depending on the nature of the situation?

“The way I think about interacting with people generally is to find out what it is that they’re thinking, to give them a sense for what I’m thinking, and then to try to synthesize and try to find the truth that lies between people.”
—Barack Obama

In a newly published set of experiments, Professor Debra Gilin of Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and her colleagues set out to answer this question. Their conclusions may help you better understand your negotiating counterparts and achieve better outcomes for yourself.

Different tasks, different skills
In their study, Gilin and colleagues created various competitive scenarios and assessed the degree to which perspective taking or empathy helped or hurt their participants’ performance.

In the first experiment, pairs of undergraduate students engaged in a simulated arms race. The participants were financially rewarded for disarming weapons and financially penalized for bombing the country represented by their counterparts. Students who were naturally skilled at perspective taking achieved higher monetary outcomes for themselves and more peaceful resolutions than did those who were more naturally empathetic. It seemed the more empathetic participants had difficulty predicting their opponents’ strategic moves. Their ability to tap into the other side’s emotions was of little use to them in this task.

In two other experiments, groups of three students were given a chance to briefly get to know one another. They were then separated and asked to choose one of the other students as a partner for the next round, where they would have a chance to win a cash prize. The catch, they were told, was that they would advance only if the person they chose also chose them. Thus, the experiments tested students’ ability to assess the strength of the connections they had just developed. In these experiments students who were naturally empathetic or who were encouraged to be empathetic achieved more matches than did those who were more naturally skilled at perspective taking or who were primed to take others’ perspectives. In this context, participants’ intuitive skills and emotional reasoning were more important than their ability to think strategically.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
—Chinese proverb

In a final experiment, perhaps not surprisingly, participants responded more to cognitive cues when engaging in perspective taking and more to emotional cues when empathizing. The results suggest that people can switch between perspective taking and empathy as needed.

Choosing which skill to highlight
Overall, Gilin and colleagues’ study suggests that perspective taking and empathy are not always the boon to negotiation that one might expect, and they are certainly not interchangeable. Rather, each is useful in different contexts. The results suggest the benefits of drawing on one or the other skill depending on the situation.

More specifically, when you are focused on building business networks and alliances, aim to empathize with those around you by tuning in to their emotions. Similarly, empathy will be valuable in helping you negotiate or mediate heated disputes. By contrast, in complex negotiations that require significant strategizing, you may profit more from perspective taking—that is, trying to understand how others think rather than what they feel.

“If there is any secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
—Henry Ford

Of course, it’s difficult to turn empathy or perspective taking on and off like a switch. Moreover, the complexity of real-world negotiations often requires us to draw on both skills, sometimes simultaneously. But when you understand that each skill has its time and place, you will be more capable of questioning your thoughts and feelings about your counterpart and focusing on what matters most.

Source: “When to Use Your Head and When to Use Your Heart: The Differential Value of Perspective- Taking Versus Empathy in Competitive Interactions,” by Debra Gilin, William W. Maddux, Jordan Carpenter, and Adam D. Galinsky. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013.

The basics of perspective taking

When we take another person’s perspective, we actively consider and appreciate her viewpoint, role, and underlying motivations, write Adam D. Galinsky, William W. Maddux, and Gillian Ku in their article “The View from the Other Side of the Table” in the March 2006 issue of Negotiation.

Getting inside a counterpart’s head can help you resolve disputes and improve the quality of your deals, according to Galinsky and colleagues. Perspective taking promotes trust between negotiators by helping them overcome suspicious assumptions about one another’s behavior.

Some people are especially skilled perspective takers. People who live abroad for an extended period of time, for example, learn to study the behavior of those around them for important cultural cues—a practice that improves their perspective-taking ability back at home. But any negotiator can become better at envisioning a counterpart’s perspective by pausing to analyze his interests, motives, and needs.

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