When to Use Your Head and When to Use Your Heart in Negotiation

Three serious business people talking in boardroomBy Melissa J. Anderson (New Your City)

There are many different styles of negotiation, and to get the best outcome it’s important to examine the stakes and the situation. A new study purports to show when you should put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and when it’s best to focus on feelings in negotiation settings.

The paper, entitled “When to use your head and when to use your heart: The differential value of perspective-taking versus empathy in competitive interactions” and published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin earlier this year, suggests how two different ways of “imagining others’ experience” – one cognitive and one emotional – can enable best outcomes in specific types of negotiation scenarios. The authors write:

“Philosophers and psychologists have described at least two fundamentally different modes of imagining others’ experience: Perspective-taking, which is the cognitive capacity to spontaneously consider the world from another’s viewpoint; and empathy, which is the affective capacity to emotionally connect with others and experience sympathy and concern for others.”

At first, these strategies – and yes, empathy is a strategy here – don’t seem all that different. But the authors, Debra Gilin, Department of Psychology, Saint Mary’s University, William W. Maddux, INSEAD, Jordan Carpenter, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Adam D. Galinsky, Northwestern University, explain that one is about the head and the other is about the heart.

Perspective-taking (or putting yourself in someone’s shoes) means thinking about a situation from another’s viewpoint. It is a process of acknowledging your difference from someone else and trying to see how they would see. Conversely, empathy is about connection. It means seeking “one-ness” with how others and feeling how they feel. Rather than examining difference, you are focusing on similarities.

Both of these approaches have a place in negotiation, according to the research, and choosing the right one can get you the best outcome. You just have to know when to go with your heart or your head. Here’s how.

Strategic Situations

Gilin, Maddux, Carpenter, and Galinsky set up laboratory tests to examine different types of competitive, mixed-motive situations and figure out the best strategy for success. Based on their findings, they write, “When accurate understanding of an opponent’s strategic intent is critical for success, then perspective-taking will be the more effective competency. But when a competitive, mixed-motive situation requires accurately recognizing the strength of interpersonal connections with others, then empathy should prevail.”

In strategic, oppositional interactions (like war games or the prisoner’s dilemma), trying to figure out what’s going on in your opponent’s head is a better approach. “Perspective-taking tendencies seem to facilitate this mode of thinking and promote success at such tasks, while empathy does not – in fact, empathy can actually be a detriment to both peace and profit,” the authors write.

But in situations where you are working to build connections (rather than “winning” over another person), an empathetic approach is best. “In other strategic interactions, such as coalition building, success is defined by developing and understanding one’s interpersonal connection with another person. Empathic tendencies seem to facilitate this approach and promote success at such tasks, whereas perspective-taking does not and may even be a detriment under some circumstances.”

In practice, the authors write, employing empathy may help those in the organizational setting build a network of contacts and allies. Empathy can also be the right answer when settling disputes that are more relational than strategic. They authors explain, “the aggrieved individual often wants to be heard, understood, and empathized with more than they want a rational analysis of the presenting problem.”

On the other hand, in political situations with many stakeholders, or situations where there may be limited resources to secure for your team, a perspective-taking approach, where you try to figure out your opponent’s strategy, might be better.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine ways in which all of these situations could overlap. Real life interactions are never as cut and dry as they are in laboratory settings. But that doesn’t mean you should toss out the head and heart distinction that the researchers make clear. It can enable you to think more carefully about how you approach a conflict or negotiation, and being prepared is never a bad strategy.