“Why do you think getting married and having kids are the only ways to be happy, especially when you are divorced and clearly our relationship isn’t going so well, is it?” That was the last conversation I had with my mom before I hung up. She tried to convince me to get married, have kids, or my life would be ruined. And… I disagree.
We didn’t talk for a long time after that.
After reading the book “Never Split the Difference,” by a former FBI agent, Chris Voss, I realized negotiation is an art and science. A successful negotiation isn’t about being right, but having the right mindset. People like to be heard and understood.
Practicing tactical empathy, using mirroring effect, and labeling the emotions are some of the tactics I took away from reading the book.
Tactical empathy is used to understand the feelings and mindset of another person to hear what’s behind those feelings. This way I can increase my potential influence in all the moments that follow.
Mr. Voss defined empathy to be “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition” (52). We are not asked to agree with the other person’s values or beliefs. That’s sympathy.
I used that and put myself in my mom’s shoes. She is a lonely mother. After my parents’ divorce, she has had trust issues and ended up being by herself for the last 30+ years. Her understanding of parenting stays in its infancy. Her belief system remains conservative. Her love for me – of course – remains pure and utmost. Once I put myself in her shoes, my emotion was calmer. I was able to see the pain, the fear, and the loneliness from her perspective.
Mirroring is a technique to “repeat the last three words (or one to three most important words) from the sentence someone just said. We fear what’s different and are drawn to what’s similar. Mirroring is the art of insinuating similarity, which facilitates bonding” (48).
When I first tried mirroring, it was awkward and difficult. I kept thinking someone would think I’m that person who wasn’t paying attention in class and trying to recall the last three words the teacher said most recently. However, after I gave it a few tries, it sharpened my active listening skills. I tried to pay more attention to the most important three words. For example, instead of focusing on “getting married” or “having kids,” I’m more focused on “to be happy” in that dialogue with my mom.
Voss explained that “we often engage in selective listening, hearing only what we want to hear, our minds acting on a cognitive bias for consistency rather than truth” (27). It’s great to read about how four FBI agents sat together to listen to a hostage negotiation in order to grasp much needed details. Even trained professionals need support to listen actively, I definitely should continuously practice active listening.
Labeling is a tactic to validate someone’s emotions by acknowledging it. We can use sentences like: “It seems like _____” , “It sounds like ______”, and “It looks like ____.” to label what we have heard. Then pause to let the labels sink in. The other person would tend to fill in the silence.
Voss clarifies further, “[l]abel your counterpart’s fears to diffuse their power. We all want to talk about the happy stuff, but remember, the faster you interrupt action in your counterpart’s amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear, the faster you can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust” (73).
When my mom started to raise her voice, screaming into the phone about how ungrateful I was, how stubborn I was, and how much I was going to die alone, I didn’t know how to respond to her, to her fears, and to her loneliness. I let my emotions get carried away and said things that shouldn’t have been said. I should have said something like, “it sounds like you are very upset.” Then pause for four seconds and get her response.
I picked up the phone again and thought to redo the conversation with my mom, “so mom, about that discussion we had on marriage a while back, let’s talk more about it?”
“Sure, I still think you should hurry up, get married, have kids, so you can be happy. You don’t want to die alone.” She said it with much confidence.
“It sounds like you are very concerned about my happiness.” There, I practiced tactical empathy and labeled her emotions.
“Of course, I am.” she responded immediately, “I’m your mother. Who wouldn’t want their kids to be happy?”
“… to be happy…” I repeated the last three words, using the mirroring technique, and then paused.
She didn’t wait until the end of the 4th second and chimed in, “That’s right. I want you to be happy.”
“Thank you mom. I love you. Not getting married right away or having kids doesn’t necessarily make me sad.” I explained calmly, ” I may live a slightly different life, but I can still be very happy.”
The conversation went on much longer for us to discuss our value systems, timeline, and future plans. We didn’t land on the same belief, but we had a much deeper understanding of each other. We kept our emotions intact, thought and responded rationally. That was a huge improvement from the first round.
The best negotiator negotiates in other people’s worlds. To master that, we need to first practice tactical empathy, mirroring, and labeling tactics. Whether you plan on buying a car, getting a better raise, buying a home, or deliberating with your parents, remember that we are dealing with people who want to be understood and appreciated.
You don’t get what you want, you get what you negotiate – Chester L. Karrass
Written by Renee Yao, Women L.E.A.D. President
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