Empathy, Not Sympathy

Empathy, Not Sympathy

Let’s straighten one thing out right away. Hostage negotiators—all negotiators, for that matter—aren’t aiming to sympathize with the person on the other side of the barricade. What they’re shooting for is empathy: understanding the other person’s emotions. The negotiator is not putting himself in the other person’s shoes; he’s figuring out where those shoes are.

In a hostage situation, understanding that a person is angry about, say, the fact that his wife wants to leave him, gives the hostage negotiation team a great deal of information and ways of influencing his behavior. Let’s get obvious here for a second: If he’s angry about his wife, you’re not going to bring his wife to the scene. More subtly, if he’s depressed, you may have to consider whether he’ll try to commit suicide.

Everybody has emotions. Everybody has experiences. The two are not the same. Emotions are universal—we all know what sadness is like. Experiences are different. They are seldom shared. Negotiators shouldn’t pretend that they have experiences they don’t. They also shouldn’t tell the person how they’re feeling—that’s a gimme for the response: “How dare you tell me what I’m feeling?”

What they can do is tell the subject how they sound to him. “You know, you sound pretty sad,” is a lot different than saying “You’re sad,” because it’s much harder to argue with. It gives the person on the other side of the barricades a chance to talk about what they’re feeling (or not feeling) rather than arguing about it.

Listening for Emotions

In a negotiation, a negotiator has to listen for several things at once:

  • Verbal content

  • Emotions

  • Values

Every sentence that comes out of a person’s mouth contains two different types of information. There’s the verbal content: the literal meaning of the words. Then there’s the emotional content: the meaning that comes from the way a person expresses it. A lot of times emotions tell you more than the words themselves.

Listening for the subject’s emotions is very important in a hostage situation. For one thing, they can be a clue to their personality and mental state. But more important, listening to a person’s emotions gives you a way to establish a rapport and to communicate with them. Without that basic rapport, there is no sound basis for emotions. In most cases in a hostage situation, a connection is established emotionally first.

Emotional communications are important in other negotiations as well. If you’re negotiating a curfew with a teenager, believe me, 95 percent of what that communication is about is emotion; rely solely on verbal content and you’re going to be grossly uninformed.

Active Listening

“Active listening” is kind of a buzz phrase in hostage negotiating. It’s a reminder that listening isn’t a passive activity.

When you’re listening in a negotiation, you’re trying to find out what the other side’s position is. You’re also listening for clues to what they think is important. Now in most negotiations, the person on the other side of the table is not going to give you a list of (a) everything he thinks is important, and (b) what he’s willing to give up. On the contrary, he’s probably going to try to disguise a bit of (a) and may not even know himself the details of (b).

I would counsel negotiators in most instances to give out as much of (a) as possible; get the important issues on the table where they can be dealt with and you can resolve them. But obviously you’re going to hold back on (b), at least a little. And sometimes a negotiator doesn’t know all of (a) until the other side comes back with (c).

When you’re in listening mode, you can use your ears to determine (b), at least a little, from the verbal and emotional content he uses to describe (a).

Jeez, you’d think this was an algebra class with all these integers. What I mean is:

Usually, the way someone tells you about what he wants lets you know how much he really wants it.

Even if the negotiator on the other side of the table is a pro and gets right to the outline of the deal—what’s negotiable and what’s not—you have to listen carefully to make sure the content and emotion match up.