April 24, 2008 -- Taking on your opponent's perspective may give your negotiation skills a boost.
But beware of taking it too far. Empathizing with your opponent may have the opposite effect.
A new study suggests that perspective-taking, such as understanding and anticipating an opponent's interests, thoughts, and likely behaviors, makes negotiators more successful at striking a deal. But those who empathize with their opponents by focusing mostly on the other party's feelings and emotions are less successful in the art of negotiation.
"Negotiators give themselves an advantage by thinking about what is motivating the other party, by getting inside their head," says researcher Adam Galinsky, PhD, of Northwestern University, in a news release. "Perspective-taking gives you insights into how to structure a deal that can benefit both parties. But unfortunately in negotiations, empathizing makes you more concerned about making the other party happy, which can sometimes come at your own expense."
Improving Your Negotiation Skills
In the study, published in Psychological Science, researchers conducted three different experiments to examine the relationship between successful negotiations and perspective-taking and empathy tendencies.
In the first experiment, a group of MBA graduate students were asked to negotiate the sale of a gas station where a deal based only on price was impossible because the seller's asking price was higher than the buyer's limit.
The results showed buyers who were more perspective-takers than empathizers were more successful at reaching a creative deal -- such as the promise of a job for the gas station seller if the seller could lower the sale price.
In the second experiment involving the same gas station sale situation, MBA students who were assigned to be the buyers were divided into three groups: one group was assigned to be perspective-takers who were told to imagine what the gas station seller was thinking and what the seller's interests and purposes were; another group was assigned to be empathizers who were told to imagine what the gas station seller was feeling in selling the station; the third group was a control group that was instructed to focus on buying the gas station.
Researchers found the perspective-takers had the most successful negotiation skills and increased the satisfaction of the sellers compared with the control group. Empathizers produced the highest levels of satisfaction among the sellers, but they were less successful at striking a deal.
Finally, in the third experiment, MBA students were asked to use their negotiation skills to work out a complicated job-hire situation. Again, perspective-takers created more value for themselves and earned more for themselves than those in the empathy or control groups.
Researchers say the results suggest that perspective-taking is an important negotiation skill. Empathy may be helpful in many other types of social interactions, but this study shows that it may make it harder to come up with creative solutions and promote self-interest.