Appealing to Sympathy When Dealing with Difficult Situations

Should you let your negotiation counterpart know if you're dealing with difficult situations? Here's what the research suggests.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

dealing with difficult situations

Imagine that you are about to enter into a negotiation. Unbeknown to your counterpart, the stakes are particularly high because you are dealing with difficult situations behind the scenes. Maybe your organization is struggling financially and needs a break to stay in the black. Or you are planning to ask for a raise to help cover some unforeseen medical bills your family is facing.

Should you disclose these difficulties to your counterpart? On the one hand, conventional wisdom suggests that exposing your weakness will motivate the other party to try to take advantage of you. If you reveal to a customer that you are having difficulty staying afloat financially, for example, he could use this knowledge to try to extract severe concessions from you. On the other hand, your adverse circumstances could trigger the other party’s sympathy and inspire him to help you get a better deal.

The former theory assumes that negotiators will respond strategically to an exposed weakness; the latter assumes they will respond emotionally. Which is the case? In five experiments, Aiwa Shirako and Gavin J. Kilduff of New York University, and Laura J. Kray of the University of California, Berkeley, find that emotion tends to carry the day in such situations. Revealing hidden needs and vulnerabilities can be more beneficial—often to both parties in a negotiation—than other types of justifications for requests and concessions, their studies show. Here we look at the results in detail and suggest what they could mean for your negotiations.

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When dealing with difficult situations leads to success in negotiations

In one of Shirako and colleagues’ experiments, pairs of MBA students engaged in a simulated negotiation of the sale of a gas station to an oil company. The simulation was set up such that the parties would be unable to reach a mutually beneficial agreement based on price alone: The service-station owner would need more money to cover expenses than the executive for the oil company was authorized to spend. But by sharing information about dealing with difficult situations—namely, that the service-station owner would need a job soon, and the oil executive was looking for skilled managers—the parties had the potential to create value and reach a mutually beneficial agreement. Those playing the role of the service-station owner were also told that their spouse was suffering emotionally from working long hours at the station, information that those playing the oil executive did not have.

In the study, some of those playing the role of the service-station owner chose to reveal the information about their spouse to their negotiating partner. Those who did were much more likely than those who did not to reach an integrative deal—that is, one that met both the buyer’s and the seller’s interests. By contrast, when participants did not reveal this information, the parties were much more likely to reach an impasse. In addition, when the service-station owner provided rational rather than emotional appeals, such as “I have a loyal customer base,” pairs were much less likely to find common ground. Sharing information about their vulnerability appeared to trigger the other side’s sympathy and motivated them to be more willing to try to reach a deal.

In another experiment, undergraduate business students paired up for a simulated job-offer negotiation. Some in the role of job candidate were explicitly told to appeal to the recruiter’s sense of sympathy by mentioning that they were dealing with difficult situations, namely that they have lots of college loans to pay off, their mother is very ill, and the family is struggling to pay her hospital bills. Others playing the job candidate were instead told to use rational arguments to make their case and not to appeal to the recruiter’s sympathy, lest they seem manipulative.

Candidates who made appeals to sympathy claimed more value for themselves than their recruiter did, while those who issued rational appeals did worse than their recruiter. Recruiters claimed a similar amount of value across the two conditions, and after the negotiation, they liked the candidates who made emotional appeals just as well as those who made rational appeals, suggesting that referencing one’s weaknesses wasn’t viewed as manipulative.

Emotional versus fairness appeals

Rational and emotional appeals aren’t the only types of justification we can use to support our demands and requests in negotiation. We also can appeal to a counterpart’s sense of fairness. If you are dissolving a business with your partner, for example, you might make the argument that it’s only fair for you to get a greater percentage of the assets because you contributed more financially over the life of the partnership.

Which would be more effective, an appeal to fairness or an appeal to sympathy? Shirako, Kilduff, and Kray considered this question in another experiment, in which participants were asked to imagine that they were a supervisor considering an employee’s request for a raise. The participants were presented with one of the following three appeals from the hypothetical candidate and then asked to recommend a raise on a range from 0% to 6%:

  • Emotional appeal: “My mother is in the hospital with a terminal illness, and I am struggling to pay the bills.”
  • Rational appeal: “I have overseen the success of many of our most profitable deals over the past few months.”
  • Appeal to fairness: “Employees with records similar to mine have been granted raises as recently as last month.”

Although fairness appeals were more successful than rational appeals, emotional appeals were the most successful of all, resulting in the highest raises granted.

Weakness and the powerful

It might not be difficult for a negotiator to feel sympathetic to the appeals of someone who seems relatively powerless. But should the powerful also call on a counterpart’s sympathy when facing a legitimate hardship?

Perhaps, but here it’s important to tread with caution. In a final study, conducted online, Shirako and colleagues asked participants to imagine that they were the CEO of a digital-marketing company and that a client had come back to ask for a discount on a marketing campaign that had been previously negotiated. When the client said that it was struggling financially and feeling vulnerable, participants gave similar discounts regardless of whether the client was said to be a large, powerful firm or a small, relatively powerless one. (And here, again, emotional appeals were more successful than rational ones.)

Afterward, however, participants reported liking and trusting the powerless counterparts more than the powerful counterparts. This was the case because they viewed the emotional appeals of the powerful to be more manipulative and less professional than the appeals of those with low power.

Thus, although powerful negotiators may be able to elicit concessions by appealing to the other party’s sympathy, they might harm the relationship in the long run by doing so.

Dealing with difficult situations in negotiations: Summing it up

Overall, these research findings on the role of sympathy in negotiation suggest that revelations of vulnerability and dealing with difficult situations from a counterpart who is believed to have relatively little power can trigger sympathy in negotiators, a reaction that leads them to behave more generously and collaboratively. Powerful parties, however, may gain more in the long term from appealing to their counterpart’s sense of fairness or issuing strictly data-based justifications for their requests because sympathy appeals could have a backlash effect. Thus, the degree to which you expose such vulnerabilities may depend on your level of power in the relationship. As always in negotiation, context matters.

Two final notes. First, you might use sympathy appeals alongside appeals to rationality and fairness. The results described here should be applied with caution, as past research has found both rationality and fairness appeals to be effective. They remain highly compelling strategies that should not be overlooked.

Second, don’t exaggerate or manufacture vulnerabilities in a play for a counterpart’s sympathy. Doing so would not only violate moral codes but also threaten your relationship with the other party and your reputation as an honest negotiator.

Have you appealed to a counterparts sense of sympathy in negotiations when you were dealing with difficult situations?

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