EmpathyHuman beings are innately emotional. We often make decisions based on our emotions, then rationalize our decisions with facts. Generating empathy for one’s client can be key when trying to negotiate, or undergo mediation, to achieve a resolution. It can also be key in trying to get a favorable verdict from a jury.

Generating empathy

A study done in England looked at how television impacted viewers’ level of concern about the suffering of others enduring one disaster or another. It found that watching news stories didn’t generate much empathy and people were largely indifferent. However,

(D)ocumentaries and current affairs programs prompted more emotional responses than television news because they offered viewers a closer, more complex representation of suffering, and provided more opportunity to hear from those affected and to understand the issues involved.

Participants were particularly critical of what they saw as attempts to make them feel a certain way, but straightforward documentaries where they could hear from those affected by the violence in Gaza and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo drew more emotional responses and language to describe the suffering experienced there.

Indeed, this research appears to be bearing true in the recent tragedy of Flight 370.  Many people – having been inundated by the news – have said that they are tired of the coverage.  However, focusing those attentions on the families, the victims, and their impact through more compelling and picturesque views can be a powerful technique of creating empathy.  Indeed, adding pictures of those people in the normal environment an help to create a bond to your own experiences rather than a calculated piece of information to simply hit the new cycle.

The power of empathy

Another recent study published in Scientific American showed the difference between cognitively taking another’s perspective and emotionally empathizing, and the relative value of each depending on the circumstances. In the study, three different games were set up for volunteers. When the players were in conflict in a complex war game, those who could best understand their opponent’s perspective were more successful. Empathy in that game didn’t do players much good.

In two other games,

(U)ndergraduates interacted in groups of three, then secretly picked a partner for a moneymaking round; the goal was a mutual match. In this coalition-building task—modeling real-life networking or relational disputes—empathy paid off more than perspective taking. In a third experiment, using the same setup as the second, researchers instructed the volunteers to focus on empathy rather than perspective taking, which made them more emotionally responsive and doubled their chances of a match.

Using empathy to get the outcome your client wants

When you need to generate empathy for your client, whether from a jury or the opposing party during negotiation or mediation, you should step out of the way and let the client personalize the issues, tell the story and describe what he or she has gone through. Let the client create a documentary. Don’t tell the other party how they should feel (shame, remorse, guilt) because that will probably create more resistance.

When you are telling the story, think about its production value.  What would a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg do to make this story compelling?  Taking the time to prepare that story will go farther towards allowing the other side to see your client’s position.  This is especially true, when you allow the other side to see it without judgment, but from raw experience.

In a way, when parties agree to settle an issue, they’re creating a coalition amongst themselves.  Like the coalition building game in the study, negotiations and mediations are more likely to be successful when the parties feel each other’s pain and understand what each other is going through.