Can sympathy be an effective negotiating tool?
Yes, according to new research.
A new study by Dr. Laura Kray, a professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, notes that when one party conveys information with emotional reasons behind it, the other party is more likely to develop sympathy, be more willing to compromise, and find creative solutions.
“Sympathy is an emotion that corresponds with good will,” Kray said. “In negotiations, it can translate into a willingness to problem solve in ways that might not otherwise occur.”
The researchers discovered that being transparent about one’s misfortune is more effective when initiated by a “low power” negotiator or someone in the weaker position. Negotiators in the stronger position who tried to gain sympathy were seen as manipulative.
The study involved 106 MBA students (30 percent female) and the negotiations took place as part of one of their classes. Participants were randomly assigned to negotiating teams to play out various scenarios.
One scenario involved a dispute between a general building contractor and a real estate developer over payment. Before going on a trip, the developer told the contractor that quality counts. In an effort to improve workmanship, the contractor upgraded the type of wood used and the developer’s assistant approved the change.
However, the developer decided to sell the property and didn’t feel any upgrades were personally beneficial and didn’t want to pay for the more expensive materials.
The contractor also owed the developer money for a previous loan. The contractor explained that he could be forced into bankruptcy if the developer called the loan and he reminded the developer of his good intentions.
While the researchers did not measure the reasons behind the developer’s response, the outcome suggests that the contractor’s statements may have triggered sympathy. In the end, both parties were more poised to work out an amicable agreement to split the additional cost of the wood than they were prior to those pleas.
In another study, the researchers measured the use of sympathy-eliciting appeals and also compared the effectiveness of those appeals to rational arguments and to sharing information that benefits both parties.
When the weaker party appealed to the stronger party, shared vulnerabilities, and proposed a solution that would also benefit the stronger party, the stronger party felt sympathy and was more motivated to help, the study found.
Kray points out that the results are encouraging and give negotiators more tools to work out compassionate solutions.
“Our findings reveal an optimistic message,” she said. “Even when people are in powerful positions, situations in which cold-hearted, rational actors might be expected to behave opportunistically, we are finding instead that their feelings of sympathy motivate them to help the disadvantaged.”
The study was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.