How To Stalk Your Counterpart For Negotiation Success (But Not In A Creepy Way)

If a friend told you they wanted to set you up on a blind date with their cousin, what’s the first thing you would do? Google the cousin, right? The same should apply to someone with whom you’re negotiating. Getting to know your counterpart can help you decide how to approach the conversation based on their personality, what they value and how they like to receive information.

Let’s say you want to hire me to write branded content for your business. Through some light internet research, you would learn that the other part of my business focuses on public speaking and my best friend lives in Dallas (I write about him often). If you were asking me to decrease my contract fee, you could offer me the paid keynote at an upcoming conference or include a trip to your Dallas office to sweeten the pot and encourage me to offer a lower rate.

You also want to discern what motivates your counterpart at a deeper level. When a friend introduced me to a decision-maker at a major corporation, I looked my new contact up on LinkedIn and learned she’d spent the past three years on the board of a youth-serving nonprofit in the inner city.

While her role directing the women’s employee resource team for her company was the main purpose for our call, I was able to connect with her on a deeper level because I shared that I had spent a significant part of my career working on issues impacting inner city youth.

Google stalking may feel mildly nefarious and this strategy can feel disingenuous. Or maybe you already know your counterpart but feel guilty and like you’re using what you know about them to your advantage.

This strategy isn’t designed to help you manipulate your counterpart into doing what you want, instead, it’s a way of developing a connection and building an agreement that focuses on what actually matters to you both, rather than what you think matters.

Negotiations expert Scott Wayne explains that getting to know your counterpart helps you move beyond sympathy, which can be framed as, “I would feel the same if I were in your situation.” Instead, you want to create empathy, which you can think of as, “I understand how you feel in your situation.” It’s a subtle but important distinction.

Wayne told this year's SHRM conference that empathy is based on understanding your counterpart’s unique combination of “age, brain, faith, family life and economics.” He cautions against conflating sympathy and empathy – what you would do in their situation is irrelevant. He says, "We’ve got to get ourselves out of our way.”

Bonus: in addition to being a tool of highly effective negotiators, empathy is traditionally considered a feminine characteristic, so you’ll be less likely to experience the negative consequences women can face for negotiating. This isn’t about being so focused on the other person that you’re giving in. It’s about getting creative to ensure you’re making the best agreement for you both.

Once you’ve gotten a sense of what motivates them, strive to understand the ways your counterpart likes to receive information and frame the situation in terms of how it benefits them.

A client who wrote to me after attending my negotiation workshop said,  “At the small business I manage, I used the negotiation tools I learned to convince my employer to provide significantly more health insurance subsidies to employees than the minimum required. Using the communication style my employer likes best – reports and statistics – I was able to show why providing an extra benefit for our employees based on our demographics would go a long way to prevent turnover.”

For my client, this was a social justice issue. She was concerned about the well-being of her most vulnerable, lowest paid employees. But, she knew that what would resonate most to her boss was how the change she was proposing would impact the company’s bottom line.

If her boss was instead the kind of guy who liked anecdotes and was deeply moved by the personal experiences of his employees, my client would have been better off sharing a story about how a hardworking employee couldn’t get the preventative care he needed and ended up having to quit because he kept getting sick.

Getting to know your counterpart and using that information to build empathy can help you understand what motivates them and how they measure success. It will help you recognize the way they like to receive information and enable you to frame the negotiation in terms of how it benefits them. All of which help you walk into the negotiation set up for success.

And you thought all that google stalking of your Tinder dates was a waste of time...

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.