Is your negotiating style holding you back?

A balance between assertiveness and empathy will improve your results.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

The story, related by an anonymous job candidate on a blog called the Philosophy Smoker, went viral. According to the job candidate, referred to only as “W,” the philosophy department of Nazareth College, a small liberal-arts college in Rochester, New York, offered her a tenure-track position following a round of interviews. W said she responded by expressing enthusiasm about the job and then attempting to negotiate a better offer.

Specifically, she sent the following five requests in an e-mail to Nazareth:

1. An increase in my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2. An official semester of maternity leave.
3. A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4. No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5. A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my [postdoctoral fellowship].

To W’s shock, Nazareth allegedly responded not by rejecting her requests or continuing the negotiation but by rescinding the job offer entirely. The college reportedly told W that her requests indicated “an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.”

“This is how I thought negotiation worked,” a dismayed W told the Philosophy Smoker. “You ask for a number of perks and maybe get some of them.” She said that she had expected to get few, if any, of these perks but added, “I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

The story flew across the Internet, attracting vociferous debate. Some commenters speculated that Nazareth would have negotiated with W if she were a man—that she had experienced a backlash as a woman who asked for more, a phenomenon identified in negotiation research. Others said that W had been foolish to think she had any negotiating power in the cutthroat academic job market.

Nazareth refused to comment on the story, so we don’t know whether gender bias was a factor. It is clear, however, that W’s e-mail displayed novice negotiating skills. Her message conveyed a competitive approach to negotiation that showed little empathy for the other side’s concerns.

Empathy and assertiveness
In negotiation, a fundamental challenge is to strike an effective balance between empathy and assertiveness, write Robert H. Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet, and Andrew S. Tulumello in their book Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes (Belknap, 2000).

Empathy involves effectively understanding your counterpart’s perspective and expressing his viewpoint in a nonjudgmental manner. Assertiveness is the ability to express and advocate for your own needs, interests, and perspectives.

Combining assertiveness and empathy is smart for numerous reasons, explain Mnookin and his colleagues. Assertiveness often helps us get more of what we want, and it contributes to value creation when both sides directly express their interests. Assertive behavior also helps us confront conflict as it arises, rather than allowing it to fester, and improves our overall satisfaction, thanks to the pride we feel when we advocate on our own behalf.

By empathizing with our counterparts, we can reach a better understanding of their interests and increase our odds of finding possibilities for tradeoffs that will benefit both parties. Empathy also allows us to avoid jumping to false conclusions about our counterparts’ interests and motivations. In addition, empathy facilitates trust and information sharing by conveying concern and respect.

Viewed through this lens, W’s email was assertive but lacking in empathy. She asserted her own preferences but failed to express concern for how these preferences might affect Nazareth. Nor did she suggest tradeoffs that might alleviate any burden imposed by her requests. She also failed to explain why she wanted limits on her teaching of new courses and an early-career sabbatical.

If W’s account is accurate, Nazareth might be criticized for failing to empathize with her. Rather than exploring the motives behind her requests, the decision makers made an educated guess, namely that she actually wanted to work for a research university. In fact, W told the Philosophy Smoker, she was excited about working at a school with a heavy teaching load. She said she had asked for limitations on teaching new courses to not only make room for her research but also ensure that her teaching would be of high quality.

Overall, the exchange demonstrates how lack of empathy can become a vicious cycle in negotiation that can lead to mistrust and even impasse.

Strike a better balance
There are several steps we can take to ensure that we balance empathy with assertiveness in our negotiations. During the preparation stage, we can begin by assessing our approach to conflict, as described in the sidebar. Could the negotiation ahead trigger within us a tendency toward competition, accommodation, or avoidance?

At the table, negotiators can use various strategies to encourage all parties involved to both empathize and assert, write Mnookin and his coauthors. Here are three of them:

1. Let them talk first.
Though it’s tempting to have the first word, asking your counterpart to present her view before you do can be a wise negotiating strategy. “Many people cannot listen at all until they’ve blown off steam,” write Mnookin, Peppet, and Tulumello. “Give them plenty of time. Let them run of out of gas.”

At this stage (before you’ve had your own turn to talk), listen without judgment, but make it clear that your understanding does not necessarily indicate agreement. For example, in response to the question “Don’t you think that’s right?” you might say, “I’m not sure yet, but I want to hear more about how you see things.” When your counterpart is done presenting her viewpoint, restate what you have heard and ask her to correct any misunderstandings.

Letting the other party speak first not only gives you a stronger understanding of her views but also increases the odds that she will listen when it’s your turn to talk. And through active listening, you “gain a chance to demonstrate what empathy looks like in a negotiation,” according to the authors of Beyond Winning.

2. Tell your story.
W’s decision to communicate her requests in a single e-mail likely worked against her. A better choice would have been to pick up the phone and start a dialogue about whether particular aspects of the job offer were negotiable and how both sides might benefit from adjustments.

As part of your negotiation preparation, you can ready yourself for the assertive component of negotiation by practicing your story—that is, saying out loud what you want, why, and how you can help the other side meet their needs. Revise and rehearse your story until you think it is strong and persuasive. Then make a list of your key points so that you will be able to recall them when the negotiation begins.

After your counterpart has had his say, it’s your turn to lay out your story. When you have finished, check to make sure that your message is coming across accurately. For instance, you might say, “Just to make sure I’m expressing myself well, would you mind telling me what you heard me say?” Doing so will allow you to identify and discuss any misperceptions that have arisen.

3. When necessary, change the game.
When conflict arises or the negotiation seems to be going nowhere, think about whether either or both of you is falling back on an unconstructive negotiating style—competing, accommodating, or avoiding. Have you been trying too hard to control the agenda? Are you stuck in a destructive pattern, with one party pushing hard and the other being too accommodating? Are you both avoiding the heart of the matter?

When a negotiation isn’t going well, you should be able to change the game by behaving more empathically or assertively. “I’m realizing I’ve been doing all the talking, and I’ve lost track of your message,” you might say. Or if you feel you’re being steamrolled, you could say, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to clarify my interests on this issue because it seems like I haven’t communicated them clearly.” By changing the game in this manner, you should be able to restore balance and regain a problem-solving focus.

How will you deal with conflict?

Rather than both empathizing and asserting, people often respond to any conflict that arises in negotiation in one of three suboptimal ways, write Mnookin, Peppet, and Tulumello in their book Beyond Winning:

  • Competing.
    1. Relishing the prospect of “victory,” competitive negotiators typically seek to control the negotiating agenda and frame the issues at stake. Competitors are often reluctant to back down from their ambitious stances, and they fail to explore their counterparts’ interests. Though competitors may succeed in claiming the lion’s share of value, their hard-bargaining style also increases the risk of damaged relationships and stalemates.


    1. Accommodating. Exuding compassion and concern, accommodators strive to smooth out differences with their counterparts at the expense of their own needs. These empathic negotiators are often rewarded for their efforts with strong, trusting relationships. However, their focus on interpersonal issues may prevent them from claiming and creating value. They may also be exploited by negotiators who try to extract concessions by threatening to disrupt or end the relationship.


    1. Avoiding. Displaying little empathy or assertiveness, avoiders disengage when faced with disagreement, viewing conflict as unproductive. When asked to focus on solutions, they come across as detached. Though it’s true that conflict does sometimes go away on its own, avoiders often make the mistake of abandoning opportunities to create joint gains and end up feeling misunderstood and unhappy with their outcomes.

Rather than always adhering to one of these styles, most of us switch among them depending on the situation. By thinking about how we are likely to respond in a particular context, we can begin to replace our unproductive negotiating strategies with more rewarding ones.

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