Overcome A Negotiation Impasse With This One Question

You know those moments when you’re at a dead end in a conversation with your boss, partner or airline customer service rep? Whether it’s explicitly stated or not, your counterpart is saying, “There’s nothing more I can do,” or “This conversation is over,” but you’re not ready to throw in the towel.

I’ve hit many such roadblocks recently. Over the last week, I’ve been booked on a total of 16 flights trying to fly to and from two (2!) client events. While my travel karma is usually excellent, I found myself negotiating with many an airline employee due to weather delays, unrealistically tight connections, and a particularly embarrassing personal first – waking up 30 minutes after my early morning flight departed.

There were multiple points in which I heard things no business traveler wants to hear: there was no way I’d make it to my client event, or – on one of the return trips – that I wouldn’t get home to New Orleans until after 1 am. Here’s how I worked around those “stuck” points in the conversation, and how you can use the same strategies to negotiate at work.

Using Empathy to Get Unstuck

In any negotiation, those dead ends or places where you’re “stuck” often stem from each person being limited to his or her own perspective. Initially, my gate agents weren’t getting creative – they understandably didn’t see alternatives outside the process they were trained to use.

The single question I’ve found to be most effective when I’m at this kind of impasse is, “What would you do if you were me?”

In the classic book, Getting To Yes, the authors encourage people in a negotiation to “sit on the same side of the table.” They suggest that instead of thinking of two attorneys battling in front of a jury, imagine instead you’re judges working together on a joint opinion. This question allows you to operationalize that mentality by getting your counterpart to imagine a shared goal. It can help them get creative and potentially identify options neither of you had considered.

In my situation, I wanted to transition the conversation from our initial perspectives – taking it from, “I’m trying to get something from you, and you’re following protocol,” to “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” This is how I learned on my way to Tampa that the connection through Atlanta was close to oversold, but if I flew through Baltimore, I had a much better chance of getting a standby seat.

This question facilitates empathy by asking your counterpart to see the situation from your perspective. It gets them out of their default process or line of thinking, which is centered on their own circumstances.

The reverse works too. Particularly when you’re frustrated, using empathy can be a secret superpower. Imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. Whether the person giving you bad news is your boss telling you that you didn’t get the promotion or the gate agent telling you about yet another delay, they probably aren’t exactly thrilled to be the messenger.

Demonstrating empathy throughout a potentially adversarial conversation will help you to first, be a kinder human, and second, to enlist your counterpart’s help as an ally. Third, because it's is a characteristic typically associated with women, it helps you avoid triggering the gender bias women face for self-advocacy.

Using This at Work

Let’s say you’ve just been turned down for a promotion. Recognize whatever emotions come up for you. Whether you use journaling, therapy, or your favorite Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo VHS tape, make a point to work through those emotions when you’re outside of the office.

Once you’re calm and collected, try enlisting your boss or HR manager’s help in achieving your goal.

You could say something like, “I really want to stay at [company name], and I want to advance in my career. Would you help me think about what that could look like? What would you do if you were me?”

Asking a question that elicits empathy may give you fantastic new information. For example, it could prompt your decision-maker to share the evaluation process that’s used to determine whether employees are ready for the next promotion, or your boss may end up helping you identify the skill set that you most need to improve.

No matter the situation, your counterpart will often have additional or different information than you do, and it’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Asking open-ended questions like, “What would you do if you were me?”, can help you evoke empathy and reach creative solutions.

Through asking questions, using empathy and some creative problem solving, I made it to my client event with time to spare and, a few nights later was home before midnight.