In his powerful negotiation manual Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss introduces the idea of tactical empathy. According to Voss, empathy is the ability to understand things from someone else's perspective and to articulate that understanding, perhaps even better than they can. Empathy gains trust. Tactical empathy is a specific form of empathy. You might describe it as "empathy with a purpose." It is not simple relationship building for its own sake. Rather, tactical empathy is empathizing with another to gain their trust so that you can accomplish something. If you are a good person, rather than a manipulative schemer, that something is in the best interest of all involved.
One thing I want to clarify. From my perspective at least, empathy isn't about feeling another person's feelings. It might involve that, but doesn't need to. And when you're trying to accomplish something, it's important to keep that something at the forefront of your mind and to operate coolly and rationally toward accomplishing it. Empathy is about understanding another's perspective and motivations and caring about them.
What Can You Accomplish with Tactical Empathy
As a product manager, I rely on empathizing with a wide range of people in order to accomplish a lot of what I do.
Build Trust and Rapport and Reduces Resistance
Tactical empathy helps you establish a genuine connection with the other person by showing that you understand and care about their perspective. This builds trust and can lead to more open and productive discussions. When people feel heard and understood, they are less likely to put up defensive barriers. Tactical empathy can lower resistance and create a more receptive environment for communication.
By using active listening techniques like paraphrasing, summarizing, and open-ended questions, you can gather more information about the other person's needs, motivations, and concerns. This information is valuable for making informed decisions and crafting effective responses. Very often, I go into conversations with clients thinking I know what they are trying to do. Many times, as they open up, it turns out I was wrong. Not only do they surface their goals once they trust me, but they also surface the constraints and risks that I need to know to help them succeed.
When you understand the other person's perspective deeply, you can identify common ground and find creative solutions that meet both parties' needs. This collaborative approach can lead to win-win outcomes. It also helps motivate people who will then stretch themselves further to help you accomplish what they come to see as a shared goal.
Mitigates Emotional Intensity and Improves Communication
In emotionally charged situations, tactical empathy can help de-escalate tensions. By acknowledging and validating the other person's feelings, you can create a calmer atmosphere for discussions. Tactical empathy techniques, such as mirroring and labeling emotions, enhance your communication skills. This allows you to convey your ideas more clearly and persuasively while also ensuring that the other person feels heard. In a de-escalated scenario, people also give each other the benefit of doubt in interpreting meaning and intention.
Fosters Long-Term Relationships
Building a foundation of trust and empathy can lead to lasting relationships. Whether in business, personal life, or professional networks, this can be advantageous in various ways. Something I've seen in my own life is that people that I started off handling with kid gloves can eventually become more intimate friends and coworkers, someone I can goof around with and really enjoy on a deeper level once we've navigated the shallower waters of acquaintance using a bit of care in our initial communications.
Tools for Tactical Empathy
Voss also provides a number of tools for engaging tactical empathy. These tools help other people feel accepted and open themselves.
Here are some examples.
This technique involves recognizing and labeling the emotions that the other person is feeling. By acknowledging their feelings, you show that you understand their perspective, which can help create a sense of rapport and lower emotional barriers. E.g.:
- "It sounds like you're really unhappy."
- "Man, this has been bothering you, huh?"
Providing the labels for other people gives them something to respond to. They'll say something like, "Yes! Exactly!" or "Well, no, not really... Let me try again," or something in between. In any event, you'll develop your understanding and they'll feel heard.
I use emotionally labeling whenever the people I'm dealing with are emotionally charged or the situation is tense. Combined with accusation audits (see below) it is the best approach I know to de-escalate a fraught situation.
Paraphrasing and Summarizing
Summarizing and paraphrasing the other person's words can help you confirm your understanding of their perspective and show that you are actively listening. This demonstrates your willingness to engage in the conversation and builds trust. Paraphrasing is a lot like emotional labeling, except rather than identifying their feelings, your making sure you understand their ideas. In either case, you develop your understanding and they can correct misunderstandings while feeling heard.
Product managers are rarely the subject matter expert except, perhaps, on their own product. Even there, the engineers often know it better. When my engineers tell me things, I don't always understand them correctly. Paraphrasing and resummarizing is a basic skill and tactic to make sure we're on the same page after all. It also always sends the implicit message, "And I care enough to make sure we're on the same page."
Mirroring is about subtly imitating the other person's words, tone, and body language. It can make them feel more comfortable and foster a connection. However, it's important to use mirroring naturally and not to the point where it becomes obvious or awkward. The key thing is that you do not mimic someone else, but rather, follow their lead and let them set the emotional tone of the conversation.
This skill is vital for job interviews, incidentally. Interviewers often decline a candidate because "the vibe isn't right." That could be a deep intuition that is spot-on; but it could also be that you were way more energetic than they were, or just too reserved. Speaking a bit faster if the interviewer speaks quickly, leaning back if they are pretty chill - these little things can make that "vibe mismatch" go away.
Open-Ended and Calibrated Questions
Instead of asking yes-or-no questions, use open-ended questions that encourage the other person to share more information and insights. This allows you to gain a deeper understanding of their needs, concerns, and motivations. Good open-ending questions often start like, e.g.:
- "What is it like to..." or "What would it be like to..."
- "How would you..."
- "What are your thoughts on..."
- "Tell me the benefits of..."
- "What are some of the concerns around..."
Of note, Voss points out a couple key words to mind.
- Questions that start with why ask for an accounting and almost always subtly provoke defensiveness in the hearer. "Why did So-and-so do such-and-such?" Even if your listener hates So-and-so and disagrees with their actions, this question often primes the listener to explain and even defend So-and-so's actions.
- Questions that start with how have the opposite effect almost. They get the listener on side. "In my situation, how would you proceed?" is the best way I know to get my listener to start problem-solving for me. Not only does my listener often come up with a solution, but if they're in a position to execute it, sometimes they do!
Working as a product manager, I have many times had engineers say to me something like, "That's not possible." A well-calibrated question, such as, "What could we do now to make it possible down the road?" has often broken the emotional logjam and got the engineer brainstorming productively.
Address potential objections or concerns before the other person has a chance to voice them. By acknowledging their concerns upfront, you show that you are perceptive and understand their reservations. It also shows that you know that you and your plan are not perfect. That you've made mistakes. That the plan needs more risk management baked in. You give them permission to voice their own concerns. This is valuable information for you as a product manager because their concerns might be very valid. And even if the concerns don't need resolution in themselves, knowing the concerns helps you win over the people who have them.
Silence is golden. Silence can be a powerful tool. Allowing moments of silence after the other person speaks can encourage them to elaborate or share more information. It can also help you gather your thoughts and maintain control of the conversation. We're often afraid of silence, and it can feel awkward. If you can be at peace with the awkward, you will leave the floor open for someone else to step onto it and start saying things, some of which you didn't know.
Tactical empathy, as taught by Chris Voss, has been helping me get things done when other people are involved for years now. Through genuine understanding, trust-building, and purpose-driven interaction, it has helped me be a better PM. Its toolkit of techniques, from emotional labeling to open-ended questions, cultivates rapport, diffuses tension, and encourages problem-solving. This approach doesn't just secure immediate wins; it fosters enduring relationships, transforming both interactions and individuals. Tactical empathy has helped me reshape negotiation and loggerheads into a productive explorations that end in win-win situations.
I'm not doing him justice. You should read the book.