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The Power of Empathy in Negotiation
By Marie R. Miyashiro

Do you believe negotiation has to involve some level of sacrifice or compromise? In fact, this process can be one of mutual giving and receiving, in which all parties in the negotiation end up feeling satisfied that their needs were valued and addressed. This may seem like a fairy-tale outcome, but the power of empathy makes it possible.
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NVC Quote of the Month
"Conflicts, even of
long standing duration,
can be resolved if we
can just keep the flow
of communication going
in which people come
out of their heads and
stop criticizing and
analyzing each other,
and instead get in
touch with their needs,
and hear the needs of
others, and realize
the interdependence
that we all have in
relation to each other."

"We can't win at somebody
else's expense. We can
only fully be satisfied
when the other person's
needs are fulfilled as well
as our own."

Empathy in Negotiation ... continued

Many buy in to the myth that empathy is a tangential soft skill, but in reality, empathy is critical for successful negotiation, collaboration, and partnership.

My definition of empathy derives from the concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as delineated by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 2003). I've taken the principles and practice he describes and applied them to the business world for results clients describe as greater effectiveness, productivity, and profit.

Basically, empathy, or empathic connection, is the skill and practice of identifying and connecting to the needs, or deep values, of another individual, or a team or company as voiced by individuals. It's a skill for “getting” what matters to others so they feel seen and heard. I use needs and values interchangeably.

Many people confuse needs with wishes, wants, or strategies, whereas needs go deeper and, as defined in this process, refer to universal human needs, such as trust, respect, autonomy, understanding, meaning, progress, collaboration, and contribution. We may want to double our market share, for example, but market share is not a need; it's a strategy to meet needs as growth, viability, contribution and progress.

As a manager, you'll be more successful when you address universal human needs, whether you're dealing with direct reports, supervisors, or customers. The best way I know of to find out what needs are active for someone around any issue is to have a conversation with the person and guess those needs.

Some recurring needs I see in our consulting and coaching practice with businesses include respect, trust, acknowledgment, contribution, and autonomy. 

Needs-based negotiation is highly effective, and this skill or the lack of it can make or break a manager's career. In fact, William Ury, bestselling author of the business book Getting to Yes and co-founder of Harvard Law School's negotiation program, says, “NVC is the most important process you'll ever learn.”

Why is connecting to needs so important? Because conflict only occurs at the strategy level, not at the need level. When we really get what matters to other people and they get what matters to us, we've greatly increased the probability we will arrive at a strategy to satisfy multiple parties' needs.

Needs connection works wonders in interpersonal relationships, and when I bring it into the workplace, I add a dimension: I also focus a team or executives on the needs of the whole, or what I call the organizational We. Organizations and teams are living systems, but they don't have the same kinds of needs that people do. Rather, the people in them have a shared reality of the collective needs of the We. I help teams think collaboratively about what I call:

The Six Universal Organizational Needs:

  1. Identity (who we are)
  2. Life-Affirming Purpose (why we exist)
  3. Direction (where we're going)
  4. Structure (how we organize our Direction)
  5. Energy (how we fuel our progress)
  6. Expression (what we want to be known for—our unique brand).

The key in workplace negotiations is to consider all three levels of needs—the I, the You, and the We needs. Always begin with self-understanding. If you don't know the values and needs most important to you, you won't be able to guess others' needs as easily, negotiate effectively, and come up with strategies to meet the most needs that people can live with and get behind.

Managers who have the most clarity around needs at all levels—intrapersonal (the I), interpersonal (the You), and organizational (the We)—tend to be the most successful at negotiation and leading.

When negotiating, you'll want to first approach someone not with a specific strategy or mandate but with dialogue and a connection to needs. Let's say a manager wants a group of employees to work a different schedule because a change has happened in how the business or service is delivered. He or she could approach the situation from two different perspectives.

  1. The manager tells employees the business has changed and asks people to work a new weekly schedule. That's a specific strategy (and a mandate). Because it didn't come from the team, they're likely to react on a wide-ranging scale, from liking it to hating it.

  2. Or, the manager brings the group together and takes the time (I call this pay now or pay later with interest) to explain what's going on with the business and the service level the business unit wants to achieve. They then discuss the company's Purpose, Direction, and Expression.

    After that, employees share their individual needs. Some may have child­care, transportation, or health issues, which point to the needs of ease, accessibility, or rest. Everyone hears what matters most to each of the others. People long for both clarity of shared purpose and to have their own needs met for understanding, consideration, and respect. The manager intentionally stays away from specific strategies until the needs of team members have surfaced and relevant individual needs are heard.

    At that point, the manager asks, “What are your suggestions for how we as a group can best address the level of service we're now being asked to meet?” The team members then come up with their own strategies and Structure to match the discussed needs.

In this scenario, the threshold for agreement with a plan also shifts from a “what I like/want” to “what I can live with” level. For groups to make progress together, you want to select the strategy where the most people are excited by it and those that are not can at least live with it and support it.

So two factors are key:

  1. When you bring people together and have a needs-based conversation, initially avoiding discussion of strategies, the group tends to organically develop strategies that address the most needs possible of the individuals and business.

    Those strategies have the highest likelihood of being accepted and implemented, because people tend to like their own ideas. Remember, we're talking about universal human and organizational needs, not wishes, wants, or desires.

  2. When you do this, you've also harnessed the emotional goodwill of the people who are doing the work and who will experience the change, which has everything to do with empathy. Emotional goodwill is achieved when people experience, not just hear, that what matters to them is valued by others, whether it's their coworkers or their managers.

Organizational research has shown that these two actions account for much of the success of the 30 percent of change initiatives that are successful. About 70 percent of change initiatives fail because these two elements weren't incorporated.

Needs connection works especially well with customers, too. Sometimes you make choices customers don't like, but you can meet their needs for respect, acknowledgment, and understanding. Then, together, you can look for other ways, or strategies, through which the company might satisfy the request. If this is not doable, then empathizing with their needs behind their request or strategy can be powerful. The best customer service representatives understand this distinction between needs and strategies.

In summary, needs-based negotiation is about creating a new generative space between the parties by connecting with what matters to each person in the negotiation and the We they represent. The goal is for all stakeholders to receive something valuable and willingly contribute to other parties as well as they advance the group's Purpose and Direction. Empathy gives you the power to create this reality.

Marie R. Miyashiro,
APR, an award-winning consultant and author, writes, speaks, consults, and trains on collaboration, communication and change in the workplace. She's the author of The Empathy Factor: Your Competitive Advantage for Personal, Team, and Business Success published by PuddleDancer Press and translated into Dutch, German and French with Chinese soon to follow. She's CEO and president of Elucity Network, Inc., and with CNVC-certified trainer Gregg Kendrick, is part of the IC Globally Team, an empathy-based consulting and training firm based in Arizona that works with Fortune 300 companies, universities, government agencies, and nonprofits. Visit:

© 2013-14 Marie R. Miyashiro -Permission granted for use in PuddleDancer Press e-newsletter.


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"NVC, as a language of
needs and empathic
connection, supports an
empowerment paradigm.
For this reason, it's a key
element of this universal
organizational need
of Structure."

From page 121 of The Empathy Factor
by Marie R. Miyashiro


Decisions made using the
Consent Model produce
whole team support for
agreed-upon initiatives,
increased understanding,
cohesion, and connection
among team or group
members, as well as
progress on issues and
initiatives that meet
organizational needs.

From page 196 of The Empathy Factor
by Marie R. Miyashiro









The Empathy Factor

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Marie R. Miyashiro
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