The economic climate in the tech world has not been the most accommodating lately. With Microsoft laying off 10,000 employees, Google laying off 12,000, Amazon cutting more than 18,000 jobs, and Meta announcing an additional 10,000 layoffs this year, we might not be as tempted to enter into the new job market or even negotiate our current salary. It might feel safer to keep our heads down, with the focus on keeping our current job rather than finding a new one. And that is a valid mindset… however, that does not mean it is time to get lax in maintaining our negotiation skills.
According to Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator turned adjunct Professor at Harvard Law School, we enter into negotiations about six or seven times every day. We’ve dabbled in negotiation tactics before in a previous article that discussed the value of mirroring/echoing. Still, today we will get some additional advice from Voss, as we prepare to practice in the everyday small negotiations so that our skills are honed and ready when we sit at the table for big negotiations.
Understanding “Tactical Empathy”
I was initially a little leery of the phrase “tactical empathy,” because it just sounds manipulative, but I appreciate Voss’s definition. To Voss, tactical empathy is not agreement or compassion, but an accurate understanding of the person with whom we are negotiating. For the purpose of negotiations, we try to understand their worldview and what they want — setting our own feelings aside — so that we can know and follow their rules. Voss says, “The adversary is not the person across the table. The adversary is the situation. The person across the table is the counterpart struggling with some aspect of your problem. You work with them and solve that problem together, and you’re both better off.” We must understand and respect another person’s rules to negotiate successfully.
Trigger Mirroring Neurons
Besides mirroring another person’s words to further our rapport, we can also encourage them to mirror our own by tapping into their mirroring neurons. While it might be tempting to use an assertive voice during negotiations, Voss discourages it, because while you may feel dominant, it can elicit anger in your counterpart and shut down negotiations. Voss shares various tones that can be employed to greater effect, but the one he primarily leans into is what he calls the “late-night FM DJ” voice. It’s the perfect description, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I immediately hear it in my head — it’s slow, soothing and friendly. Everyone relaxes a little bit. And this is precisely the energy we should bring to negotiations as we work together to solve a shared problem.
I have written multiple times in this column about my hesitancy with applying labels to people. However, when Voss talks about using labels, he is referring to the labeling of emotions, and I am in complete support of that concept. Labeling verbally acknowledges the other side’s feelings and positions — e.g., “You sound angry.” As soon as we say this, it gives our counterpart a chance to assess the label, and if it is accurate, it can defuse that negative emotion. A simple phrase can help our brain process and cope with that negative feeling. Labels are powerful tools for reinforcing positive and deactivating negative feelings, but we can’t continue speaking. We need to label, and then give them silence to assess, and then wait for them to speak. This is how we build trust.
There is one correction that needs to be added. Many of us have been told that we should use “I” messages to soften our perspective, yet Voss says this is not the case. By saying, “What I am hearing…” or “It sounds to me like…” or “I think you…,” we are making it about us first. At its core, labeling is designed to let your negotiation counterpart know that you understand their feelings, and these “I” statements weaken that label.
Whether you are sitting across the table to broker that new deal at work, negotiate a better price for your loan, or convince your three-year-old to eat dinner, you can feel more confident in your position with these few new tips in your back pocket. It can be so easy to see your negotiation counterpart as your adversary, but if a literal hostage negotiator can practice tactical empathy, so can we. We can strive to understand their rules, label what they are experiencing, bring down the energy level with our “late-night FM DJ” voice, and find a solution that leaves each of us in a better position. And when we’re able to practice those negotiation skills in low-risk situations, we’ll feel more confident when negotiating high-stakes decisions that more deeply impact our careers and lives.