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Research Highlights

When Negotiating, Consider Playing the Sympathy Card

gkilduff

...if negotiators find themselves in genuine positions of weakness or vulnerability, they may consider revealing this information rather than hiding it, as doing so is apt to arouse the helpful concern of their negotiating counterpart.

While common wisdom holds that negotiating from strength wins the day, researchers are finding that playing the sympathy card – when it’s legitimate – can trigger a more creative and potentially equitable outcome for all negotiating parties.
 
In “Is there a place for sympathy in negotiations? Finding strength in weakness,” NYU Stern Professor Gavin J. Kilduff investigated whether appeals to sympathy are useful as a negotiating tactic.
 
Professor Kilduff and co-authors Laura Kray and Aiwa Shirako of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business tested a series of increasingly complex negotiating scenarios among both MBA candidates and participants with managerial experience. They sought to determine to what extent sympathy pleas – based on financial distress, health, or a less emotionally laden reason – made a difference and whether a party’s power level affected the outcome of its admission of vulnerability.
 
In one scenario, one party assumed the role of a service station owner while another played an oil executive whose company wanted to purchase the gas station.  The station owner had several vulnerabilities that could be disclosed: he needed more money to cover his expenses than the executive was authorized to spend, plus his spouse was nearing a nervous breakdown from overwork, thus necessitating the sale and prompting the couple’s need for a lengthy break. For each sympathy appeal the owner made, the odds of reaching a creative agreement that satisfied both sides increased significantly.
 
All studies showed that sympathy appeals succeeded in improving outcomes for the appealing party whether or not he/she had high or low power. However, high-power, sympathy-seeking individuals were perceived as manipulative, a factor that potentially could erode their trustworthiness and ability to negotiate effectively going forward.  Says Professor Kilduff, “Our results offer at least an initial suggestion that if negotiators find themselves in genuine positions of weakness or vulnerability, they may consider revealing this information rather than hiding it, as doing so is apt to arouse the helpful concern of their negotiating counterpart.”