It’s not intuitive: To better read emotions, think more rationally

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Negotiation research you can use

In negotiation, reading others’ emotions is a critical skill. When you can accurately assess whether a job candidate is pleased by a salary offer, if a potential customer is growing impatient with a sales pitch, or if a colleague was hurt by something you said, you will be able to respond appropriately and better determine if an agreement is in sight.

From experience, we know that some people are better at reading emotions than others. But why? People tend to assume that empathic accuracy, or the ability to discern others’ feelings, is associated with intuition, University of La Verne professor Christine Ma-Kellams and Harvard University professor Jennifer Lerner found in one experiment on the topic. But the results of their other experiments showed that, in fact, people who tend to rely on their intuition are less empathically accurate than those who think more analytically.

In one experiment, for example, participants in an executive-education program at Harvard were paired up and engaged in mock job interviews. Afterward, they answered questions about how they felt and how they thought their partners felt during the interviews. Participants’ general tendency to rely on intuitive versus analytical thought was also assessed in a separate test. The results showed that the more participants rely on systematic (rather than intuitive) thought, the more accurately they read their partners’ emotions. In another experiment, participants who were encouraged to rely on systematic thinking before engaging in a mock interview were better at reading their partners’ feelings than were those who were induced to rely on intuitive thinking.

Overall, the results are good news for those of us who believe that our intuition fails us when it comes to reading counterparts’ emotions in negotiation: We should be able to improve our empathic accuracy by thinking more deeply about what the other party might be feeling and why. Although intuition can be helpful in certain aspects of life, these results confirm that in negotiation, more methodical analysis may lead to smarter conclusions and better results.

Resource: “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy,” by Christine Ma-Kellams and Jennifer Lerner, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2016.

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