Does sympathy help during conflicts and negotiations?

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Empathy puts yourself in someone else’s shoes emotionally. Sympathy by comparison is when you have feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. In a dispute, conflict, or negotiation does sympathy work for or against you? You may be surprised. In this article by the Harvard Program on Negotiation they looked at five studies. What they found was that although you may have thought that sharing vulnerabilities may have caused the other side to pounce on the weakness, just the opposite was the case. Those that shared information about dealing with a difficult situation created a more mutually beneficial agreement. This commentary looks at this question a bit deeper.


Sharing hidden needs


Behind every position is at least one interest. Interests hold the seeds to a solution. If one of your interests is a vulnerability or a constraint and this is shared, this often leads to a better outcome for you. Why? If you are faced with a difficult situation such as you simply cannot meet a price point, quantity, or similar constraint being offered by the other side, it is suggested to share this with them. Perhaps there is a personal situation that enters into the discussion. Is there a way that value can be created to still work some part or all of the deal?

Think creatively here. Work together on this.

What about another product, a shift in schedule, a partnership on multiple products or something else?


Emotion, fairness, and rational concerns with pay raises


Interestingly enough those that presented rational justifications did not do nearly as well as those that presented emotional appeals. This actually makes a lot of sense. We are 98% emotional and 2% rational. Hostage negotiators know this and capitalize on this in their negotiations. Executives apply this concept in their work too.

Appealing to fairness matters too. In the article employees were asking for raises. The range could be  0% to 6% as recommended by supervisors. Supervisors were presented with three scenarios addressing emotional, fairness, and rational arguments by employees:

  • Emotional appeal: “My mother is in the hospital with a terminal illness, and I am struggling to pay the bills.”
  • Appeal to fairness: “Employees with records similar to mine have been granted raises as recently as last month.”
  • Rational appeal: “I have overseen the success of many of our most profitable deals over the past few months.”

The emotional appeals were the most successful, the fairness appeal was next, and the rational appeal resulted in the least percentage raises by the supervisors.


How did power influence emotional decisions?


It was found that when a power player applied an emotional appeal this was received negatively and thought to be manipulative. By comparison when a non-power player presented similar facts  related to sympathy, empathy, or fairness this had an impact that was helpful to the non-power player. If a concession was made to the powerful player based on emotion, there may have been a concession, but this also likely negatively impacted the relationship between the parties going forward.

“Overall, these research findings on the role of sympathy in negotiation suggest that revelations of vulnerability and dealing with difficult situations from a counterpart who is believed to have relatively little power can trigger sympathy in negotiators, a reaction that leads them to behave more generously and collaboratively. “

Two cautions were presented:

  1. Apply these results with caution. Sound rational arguments should not be overlooked.
  2. Do not embellish, exaggerate, or manufacture facts to generate empathy, sympathy, or fairness. This will jeopardize your reputation as an honest negotiator.


Terminology related to needs and feelings


 Words matter and identification of needs and feelings should be given some thought. The Center for non-violent communication offers both a needs inventory and a feelings inventory.  The needs inventory presents eight broad categories and over 80 specific needs. The feelings inventory is broken down into two broad categories of feeling when needs are satisfied and feelings when needs are not satisfied. The feelings when needs are satisfied are broken down into eleven broad categories and over 80 specific feelings. The feelings when needs are not satisfied have 13 categories and over 140 specific feelings. Why is this important?

In our day to day conversations with others you may be aware of a few words related to needs and feelings. By having reviewed these comprehensive needs and feelings before a negotiation, they likely will help you more clearly offer your perception of how the other party is feeling in the negotiation. Having reviewed this list and having listened actively to the other party you can check with the other party to see if you were able to capture how they were feeling.  If correct great. If not asking more questions may help you be able to capture their feelings.


Listening actively


By paraphrasing what they have stated, asking open ended questions, summarizing what you think you have heard and empathizing with the other party you are demonstrating active listening.  

If a person has been listened to, they are more apt to listen to you. Practice active listening first.

When you listen actively you also need to suspend judgment and do not offer advice. This is hard. It takes practice to become proficient at suspending judgment and not offering advice. However, by taking these actions this allows you to truly listen actively and work with the other party to determine the facts, the issues, the feeling, and the emotion behind the issues, and invariably the interests. When you understand interests, it is possible to work towards a solution.




Empathy, sympathy, and fairness may be more powerful tools than the strictly rational information supplied by data in a negotiation. Do not under estimate the value of each. The commentary above introduces an article that summarizes key points from five studies and provides you insights related to emotional elements associated with a negotiation. Consider terminology around capturing your understanding of the needs and feelings of the other party and apply listening actively techniques towards negotiations to have more positive results in in the future.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]