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The Art of Negotiation: The Importance of Empathy, Active Listening, and Communication in Marketing’s Greatest Equalizer

Empathy and negotiations don’t seem to go hand in hand. Negotiations tend to be viewed by many as zero-sum, adversarial conflicts, especially in business. Negotiators, however, have many tools at their disposal that do not resort to negativity or hostility in order to support their positions.

So what does it take to win at negotiations? We sat down with hostage-negotiator-turned-consulting-negotiator (yes, seriously) Dan Oblinger and negotiation coach and consultant Allen Tsang, to uncover the importance of empathy, active listening and communication in negotiations.

The Deadly Sins of Communication

Communication is a two-way street, but listening is one-way only. While most people say they are a good listener, they often unknowingly commit a few of the deadly sins of communication:


By disrupting someone’s train of thought, you are interrupting their flow and derailing the momentum of the dialogue while often adding very little to the conversation.


We all know the type. You’re proudly telling someone about the trout you caught while fishing last weekend, and someone steps in to talk about an even bigger trout they once caught. It seems you can’t share your accomplishments without this person boasting their bigger and better accomplishments, making yours feel insignificant in comparison.

Listening only to know what to say

Listening to reply is the standard way that most people communicate. While you may get your point across with a well-thought-out reply, it’s likely you’re not having a meaningful interaction with the other person.


We are all guilty of this, even if we might not realize it. When you hear idea A, you immediately begin to think through its implementation, while the other person is still running through ideas B, C, and D. “We call this executive-level daydreaming. It’s all about rushing to implementation and problem solving instead of listening through to the end,” says Dan.

However, he continues, all of these can be simplified into one thing: associative listening.

Associative Listening

It’s human instinct to look for ourselves in our own environment. When listening to a story, humans will naturally start examining it through their own lens and experiences, searching for elements that remind them of themselves.

With this in mind, what comes next? The interruption or follow-up to share about the thing that reminded them of themselves. While this instinct is not inherently bad, it ends up being counterproductive, says Allan. “Oh, I see. So, your kids play softball. My kids play softball too. It’s those very shallow connections that go nowhere.” 

Many business developers have been trained in associative listening through the lens of finding common ground. To help unlearn this, think of how an untrained swimmer would react if thrown into a deep body of water. “The natural response to getting thrown into a deep body of water is to drown. The natural response when somebody’s telling a really intense and personal and like valuable story is to listen for your own story and begin to share it, thinking that that’s helpful in terms of building a relationship and problem solving,” says Dan.

“But the unnatural response in a drowning opportunity is to swim. It’s skilled and rehearsed, but the more you practice, the more likely you’ll survive even in rough waters.” Just like learning to swim, active listening is a skilled, rehearsed response you must learn and actively apply to achieve success.

Listening for Positioning

As naturally concrete thinkers, many in the AEC industry would suggest that they are quite rational in their decision-making and negotiating. According to Dan, this is simply not true. “It’s challenging for AEC people to hear, but emotions are the foundation for our decisions. We often decide before we think about it.”

Being able to understand human decision-making allows you to be a more effective listener. Listen for the position of your counterparties, the interests that help them form that position, and their biases and emotions that led them to this position. As you become more in tune and curious about how positions are formed, you will be able to listen more effectively and negotiate more successfully.

One crucial element to this method is creating a sense of safety that encourages people to tell you the truth. “You can’t build a strong agreement if they’re not telling you what’s really going on. You’re not going to solve the right problem if they don’t tell you what the real problem is, and you won’t actually do anything for them that they feel good about paying you for, if all you’re doing yourself problems and the pain is still there, that all those problems are really causing in their culture or for their organization,” says Dan.

Creating this sense of safety and trust involves speaking the other party’s language. Knowing technical words and lingo is just one part of this principle; you must also catch the cultural nuances behind what you hear and observe how others use words to convey ideas. You send the message that you value the negotiation and the relationship by understanding the other party’s culture, history, and perspectives. Fluency indicates your readiness to comply with the terms of your negotiated agreement, whatever those may be.

The Art of Empathy

So, if you just need to say what the other party wants to hear, isn’t that just practicing empathy? Not necessarily, says Allan. “We have to define which type of empathy we’re talking about. People confusing the different types of empathy is what’s going to get them trapped. There’s compassionate empathy, there’s cognitive empathy, and then there is emotional empathy. A lot of people confuse emotional empathy or compassionate empathy with cognitive empathy. As negotiators and negotiation coaches, we focus on cognitive empathy.”

Cognitive empathy, he explains, is like what you would want your doctor to have. “You want a doctor to know you’re in pain, but you don’t want your doctor to break down because you lost an arm and he cannot function and he’s crying with you,” he says.

“Owners are like patients,” Dan adds. “At the heart of all of this, they want that piece of competence. You could be the most empathetic and most trustworthy person in the world, but if you can’t, if your firm can’t technically design things, you won’t be long in the marketplace, so you have to have that down.”

No one wants a doctor with a great bedside manner, but who doesn’t know what ibuprofen is. As an AEC professional, you must balance technical expertise and empathy to become a true and trusted advisor and expert negotiator.

Key Takeaways

Negotiation is an interpersonal process. Perceiving how other people are feeling is a critical component of negotiation and overall emotional intelligence. While it’s easy to view a negotiation in binary terms, infusing your negotiations with empathy and active listening will increase your chances of success.

To learn more about the role of empathy in negotiation, listen to episode 36 of AEC for Principals podcast.