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Negotiation tip: Sympathy makes people more willing to compromise

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This is according to research by Laura Kray, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which suggested that as sympathy is an emotion that corresponds with good will, it can translate into a willingness to problem solve in ways that might not otherwise occur.

The study involved 106 MBA students, with the reported negotiations taking 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 was all that counted. In an effort to improve his/her 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 therefore 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 suggested the contractor’s statements may have triggered sympathy. In the end, both parties worked out an amicable agreement that would split the additional cost of the wood.

In another study, the Haas research team measured the use of sympathy-eliciting appeals and also compared the effectiveness of those appeals to rational arguments and to sharing information that benefited 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 latter felt sympathy and was more motivated to help.

A person tasked with negotiating an outcome may not always want to appear weak but the study showed that sharing one’s vulnerability in a genuine way can be beneficial.

Moreover, while it was suggested that being transparent about one’s misfortune is more effective when initiated by someone in the weaker position, negotiators in the stronger position who tried to gain sympathy were seen as being manipulative.

“Our findings reveal an optimistic message,” Kray 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.”

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