A few years ago our shopneeded to train a new estimator. We decided to give someone a shot who had not worked much with the public in our industry or in previous jobs, yet seemed to have great people skills in general. On his first several attempts at dealing with customers, he was noticeably and understandably nervous. His main tactic for dealing with feeling nervous, though, was to talk about himself. The customer would mention something as part of normal conversation and the estimator in training would immediately jump in with a fairly involved, fairly lengthy story of when something similar happened to him.
One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about working with people is that what they are really interested in is themselves. One writer says that people are always tuned into the radio station “WII-FM” or “What’s in it for me?” Once I got a handle on this basic truth, my approach to almost every interaction changed. I’ve found this truth and the principles I’m about to share apply everywhere, whether I’m negotiating with a shop owner who is considering selling their business, a technician who is demanding a raise, a customer that I want to get on the schedule, or even one of my children who I’m trying to convince to eat their broccoli.
Among my leaders and managers, I talk a lot about empathy as being one of our core values and the guiding principle for how we work with our technicians and customers. Empathy sometimes gets a bad rap and is often considered too soft. It sounds like a skill that therapists might need but why in the world would we need empathy in an industry often dominated by strong personalities and tough-guy personas?
Recently I discovered a new term that I like a lot. I found it in the book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. The term is “tactical empathy.” It’s empathy but with an edge to it that recognizes the high stakes we often face. For Chris, the author and a former hostage negotiator with the FBI, empathy was more than just therapeutic. It was strategic and it saved lives.
So what are the basic practices of tactical empathy and how might a shop owner or manager use them in their daily work?
- Go for a “no” instead of a “yes.” A very ineffective, though still common, approach to negotiating is to try to get the person to say “yes” over and over. When this is done as a technique it can be very frustrating. Lawyers even have a word for this: cornering. Who wants to be cornered, right? It’s like being trapped by your own words. When a telemarketer selling water purifiers calls you at dinner and starts the conversation off with, “So do you like to drink clean and pure water?” and you reluctantly answer, “yes” despite knowing this feels like a trap. Then they follow up with, “And you would agree that drinking clean water is healthier, right?” Again, a reluctant “yes.” “And it’s safe to assume then that you really want your family to be healthy. Is that correct…” You can see how going for a forced “yes” just feels like you’re being trapped in a corner and by the time you’re done, the only logical thing to do is to buy a water purifier because you love your family and want them to be healthy. You’ve been cornered! Even though you’ve said “yes” all along, you now resent the salesperson and don’t really want to buy their product. Instead go for a “no.” Find out exactly where the disagreement is. You have now reached the starting line for negotiating.
- Always start the negotiating by focusing on what the other person wants. This is typically done through a process called “mirroring.” Mirroring is where we take the last couple of sentences spoken by the person we’re talking to and repeat it back to them. This gives them the assurance that we have accurately heard them. This typically begins with a phrase like, “It sounds like you’re saying…” One common opening phrase to avoid, however, is “I hear you saying…” Turns out the simple word “I” signals to the other person that you think this is all about you and has the unintended, but opposite, effect you’re going after.
You may not ever be in a situation where you have a high-stakes negotiation that involves life or death. Or maybe you will. Either way, we all negotiate as part of our daily lives. Being leaders in shops influencing others for their own good and the good of our shops is simply part of the fabric of our daily work. In your next conversation, practice tactical empathy. Go for a “no” and then mirror what the other person is saying. You will be well on your way to negotiating like a pro in no time.