The Advantage of Sympathy

When negotiating, emotional appeals elicit compassion and compromise, says Prof. Laura Kray

Is sympathy considered a sign of weakness in business negotiations?

Research by Laura Kray, a professor in the Haas Management of Organizations Group, suggests that when one party conveys information with emotional motivations behind it, the other party is more likely to develop sympathy, be more willing to compromise, and find creative solutions.

“Sympathy is an emotion that corresponds with good will,” says Kray. “In negotiations, it can translate into a willingness to problem solve in ways that might not otherwise occur.”

Kray’s research, “Is There a Place for Sympathy in Negotiation? Finding Strength in Weakness,” is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The paper is co-authored by Aiwa Shirako, PhD 11, a people analyst at Google, and Gavin Kilduff, PhD 10, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The researchers also found that being transparent about one’s misfortune is more effective when initiated by a “low power” negotiator or someone in the weaker position. Negotiators in the stronger position who tried to gain sympathy were seen as manipulative.

The study involved 106 MBA students (30 percent female) with the negotiations taking place as part of one of their classes. Participants were randomly assigned to negotiating teams to play out various scenarios.

In one scenario, the Haas research team compared the effectiveness of sympathy-eliciting appeals to rational arguments and to sharing information that benefits both parties. When the weaker party appealed to the stronger party, shared vulnerabilities, and proposed a solution that would also benefit the stronger party, the latter felt sympathy and was more motivated to help.

A person tasked with negotiating an outcome may not always want to appear weak, but the study shows that sharing one’s vulnerability in a genuine way can be beneficial.

Kray says the results are encouraging and give negotiators more tools to work out compassionate solutions.

“Our findings reveal an optimistic message,” says Kray. “Even when people are in powerful positions, situations in which cold-hearted, rational actors might be expected to behave opportunistically, we are finding instead that their feelings of sympathy motivate them to help the disadvantaged.”