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Negotiating with Tactical Empathy

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

In early 2019, I noticed a recurring theme in communications with other real estate agents: It became increasingly difficult to get them on the phone to negotiate. Initially, I believed that agents were simply busy and preferred the convenience of texting or emailing. I thought it might be a generational issue with younger agents who preferred texting to verbal communications. But the problem became more pronounced, and not just with young or newer agents.

It became increasingly clear that the agents who had entered real estate during the long stretch of record sales in Texas rarely had to negotiate to close a deal. Basically, many didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

How Not to Approach Negotiations

As luck would have it, I attended a real estate negotiations class where the problem became apparent. The instructor began the class with the statement, “I don’t believe in empathy, and it has no place in business negotiations or communications.”

I couldn’t disagree more. I very much believe that empathy is the key negotiation skill—in real estate and life.

Prior to my career in real estate, I spent many years as an emergency services dispatcher. In that position, I grew to appreciate the need for empathy-driven communications. I also witnessed firsthand how empathy could be the best tool for defusing situations and managing emotions.

A few weeks after that real estate negotiations class, I was speaking with one of our top-selling agents—a former police officer—who remarked that he believed that his ability to convey empathy and his ability to negotiate effectively were his biggest advantages in real estate, as they were in policing.

Getting Both Sides What They Want

Many agents approach a real estate negotiation as an adversarial process. It is not. In fact, it is a partnership built on the desire of both agents to get their clients what they want most. There’s nothing to be gained by approaching real estate negotiations as though the other side is the enemy. In fact, we better serve the interests of our clients by using any and all effective skills to further the interest of our clients.

Real estate negotiations may not be as critical as those involved in hostage negotiations, where lives quite literally are on the line. But those same strategies may easily be tailored to the world of real estate negotiations.

In contrast with the instructor from the class I attended, I do believe that the most important negotiation tool is empathy—more specifically, tactical empathy, as described in Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss. Voss, a retired chief international hostage negotiator for the FBI, states: “Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in the moments that follow.”

Don’t Invalidate Emotions

Many classes on business negotiations teach that emotion must be neutralized and removed from negotiations. The problem with that approach is that real estate is often an emotional transaction. People are emotional beings, driven by emotional desires and basic wants. Selling a home with a lifetime of experiences can be difficult. Buying a home in which you intend to raise your family can be overwhelming.

Instead of trying to invalidate and ignore the emotional factors of the parties involved, acknowledging those emotions can better serve the negotiations process. Using what’s known as the LEAPS tools from conflict resolution training can be helpful when managing the emotions of a transaction. LEAPS stands for:

Listen – Listen with all your senses and with focus.

Empathize – Truly understand the other person’s position.

Ask to clarify – Ensure a clear understanding.

Paraphrase – Reaffirm your understanding and clarity.

Summarize – Focus and prioritize.

These actions will establish a rapport along with trust and understanding. The higher the level of trust, the better negotiations tend to proceed. Trust helps remove the adversarial part of the process by allowing the other party to identify and relate to you with the same values, motives, and intentions.

By listening, we gain a much better understanding of what’s most important to the other parties involved. Remember, in every real estate transaction there are at least four people involved. The buyer and seller each have real estate agents, and both sides may have a spouse or significant other that has input or influence. Sometimes the emotions of the other agent can become an issue.

Understanding what motivates the other parties involved can make all the difference in managing effective negotiations.

When you think about it, you will realize that a real estate transaction is rarely an adversarial relationship. We all are working on behalf of our buyers or sellers and trying to get them what they want in the best possible way. In dealing with people, there are certain things we all have in common. Negotiations will be much more productive if you honor a few universal truths as discussed in Never Split The Difference and another book with excellent lessons that can be applied to negotiations, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion by George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins. Those truths revolve around treating people with respect, providing others with explanations and options rather than demands or threats, and giving people second chances.

How to Use Tactical Empathy in Successful Negotiations

All of the steps listed below include one key ingredient: tactical empathy. By directly addressing the other side’s position, recognizing hidden biases, and understanding others’ perspectives, you will truly gain a competitive edge as a negotiator.

Listening is your most important skill – Strangely enough, this is the hardest skill to master and the most often overlooked. The ability to simply stop talking and allow silence to occur without interjecting is huge.

Mirroring – Mirroring can be an effective tool in building a good rapport and gaining trust with the other party. It’s basically a form of imitation. By simply matching the speech tempo, tone, and word choices of the other party, that person begins to trust you and believe that you understand them. Here are five easy steps to mirroring:

  1. Use a calm voice.

  2. Begin with saying sorry.

  3. Repeat the last three to four words said by the other party.

  4. Stay silent, listen, and wait for a response.

  5. Repeat the four steps above.

Rephrasing and labeling – Paraphrasing restates the other party’s position. Labeling identifies that person’s emotions.Using labeling phrases such as “it seems like” and “it sounds like” not only demonstrate that you are listening but also puts the focus on the other side and encourages them to reveal more.

Use open-ended questions (getting to How) – By using open-ended questions, you create a partnership to solve a problem. That puts you in the How phase, employing the assistance of the other agent to find a solution.

Two Responses That Can Be Better Than Yes

Many business negotiation books focus on getting to yes. In reality, hearing that’s right can be much better than hearing a yes. That’s right is confirmation that the other party has actively listened and conveyed empathy.

Getting a response of no is often a much more effective tool than getting to yes. Often the word no is a temporary tool that allows one party to feel as though they are gaining control. The word no can be a great starting place to begin a conversation. Don’t be afraid to hear the word no.

Good communication and negotiation skills should not be limited to your interactions with clients and customers. Maintaining good relationships with other agents, title companies, and lenders will also benefit your clients. Be pleasant, professional, and kind. It’s much easier to get things done on behalf of your client by asking in a manner that makes people want to help. Kindness is not overrated, and can go a long way towards building lasting professional relationships.

Debbie Remington is the owner/broker of Remington Team Realty ( in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She is a retired 911 dispatcher and is married to a retired police officer. She is also the inventor of the Real Estate Mentor App. The top selling agent referred to in the article is her son, Colt Remington, who is a former police officer and United States Marine.

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