One of the fun things about my job is getting to look on as new hires learn the Source One process. Whether it is someone fresh out of college or a well-seasoned industry veteran, the techniques we use to help companies reduce costs are somewhat unique, and everyone who starts here has a learning curve.

Across the diverse set of skills and positions we hire for here, I’ve found that there is one thing that will accelerate the learning curve more than anything else – empathy. In sourcing, consulting, project management and most importantly, negotiations, the ability to hear and understand the perspective of the person you are communicating with helps fast track conversations, get to the route of issues and stalemates, and create favorable relationships. Unfortunately, empathy is not something you can really teach or train. Not only that, but nowadays it seems the word has taken on a negative connotation, and in many circles can even be seen as a weakness.

A recent post Soheila Lunney wrote titled “The Psychology of Negotiations” got me thinking more about this subject. Soheila writes about understanding human psychology, controlling emotions, and using positive words and phrases during a negotiation to create win/win outcomes. I agree with Soheila whole heartedly that those techniques will produce positive results, but all of the conditions she describes in her post focus on the communication of the negotiator, in other words, you. In my experience, the most effective negotiations occur once you hear what the other person is saying – and not just the words but what is behind them. Figuring out the other person’s emotional state – and relating to it – can help a negotiator get past superfluous discussions and move straight to the heart of an issue.

A note of caution here - when I talk about empathy, I don’t mean sympathizing with your counterpart to the point where you take their side on an issue. I have seen quite a few cases of a new analyst accepting the position of a supplier, even if the supplier was way off base, simply because they understood where that supplier was coming from, and bought into their version of reality. When I refer to empathy, what I am talking about is identifying with and understanding the situation, feelings, and motives of the person on the other side of the table. Recognizing the perspective they are coming from is much different than accepting it, but having empathy is critical to getting to that point and leveraging it.

Empathy in negotiations goes well beyond being able to leverage what your opponent is feeling into a win for you. Particularly in issues surrounding the supply chain and supplier relationships, win/win negotiations are important. After all, a successful negotiation should result in a long term supplier partnership. If you are the only winner at the end of negotiations, that partnership is going to be off to a rocky start. Many times I have seen a supplier accepting a beating at the negotiation table, and then failing to deliver after a contract has been signed. So it’s important to make sure both sides view the negotiation as a win. Being empathetic to the supplier’s viewpoints – and truly understanding why they are taking a certain position – can help facilitate that win for both parties, even if it requires the supplier to accept a lower price than they really want to.

Like many things, empathy can translate well into situations beyond the business world. Whether its politics or personal relationships, understanding the position your counterpart is taking, and recognizing the experiences that give them that perspective, provides for a level of acceptance that allows you to “agree to disagree” in a civil way. In the long run, you’ll be a lot happier – and you may even learn a thing or two!
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Joe Payne

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