Forced Empathy: A Powerful Tool of Negotiation

Forced empathy is an excellent technique for negotiating and reaching agreements. In fact, getting the other person to be able to put themselves in your place is a tool of great power. Do you want to know how to develop it?
Forced Empathy: A Powerful Tool of Negotiation
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 February, 2023

One of our biggest coexistence problems is the inability to put ourselves in the place of others. In effect, as a society, we’re becoming rooted in our own visions, perceptions, and needs. The ‘me first’ or ‘my truth is the only one that matters’ mentalities are the origin of a great deal of tension in everyday life and in the universe of social media.

Moreover, when it comes to family and couple relationships, if we were all a little more empathetic, conflicts would be resolved quickly and we wouldn’t say hurtful words that we later regret.

However, being emotionally connected and showing understanding to others isn’t easy. It’s a psychological muscle that must be enabled. Indeed, most of us are born with a neurobiological basis that makes it easier for us to empathize with others. However, sometimes, we don’t use this competence in the right way.

For example, psychopaths and narcissists employ instrumental empathy. In other words, they merely connect with the emotions of others to manipulate them and obtain a benefit.

If this ‘superpower’ was used in a positive way, not only would we achieve more enriching links, but we’d greatly improve our coexistence. For example, its usefulness for reaching agreements is a benefit that’s often neglected.

FBI negotiators are trained to apply forced empathy to their jobs.

Friends talking to each other about forced empathy
Appealing to another person to be able to understand our perspective and feelings is an example of forced empathy.

Empathizing means a better life

When was the last time you had an argument with your partner? If you have children, are you tired of having to continually argue with them over the smallest of details? When you’re dealing with confrontation, you want the other person to put themselves in your place and understand you. Indeed, without a doubt, it’d be great if we were all able to put ourselves in the shoes of others.

A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University (USA) highlights how the pandemic, far from uniting us as a society, has increased polarization and even inequalities. As human beings, one of our greatest goals should undoubtedly be to create more empathetic communities. To do this, nothing could be better than starting with ourselves and those we’re close to, like our children.

One way to do it is by learning to negotiate in order to manage these daily arguments and differences more effectively. Those that, if not resolved become entrenched, break bridges, and result in insurmountable distances. This is something that must be avoided. In this regard, a technique that the FBI uses frequently could prove to be really useful.

The art of getting the other to identify with you

Forced empathy defines a strategy for getting another person to identify with you. This technique was coined and developed by Christopher Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and CEO of The Black Swan Group. He’s one of the greatest experts in negotiation. He’s also the co-author of the book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It.

As humans, most of the time we’re not only seeking that others identify with us. We also want them to see our problems and limitations. Moreover, for them to understand our realities and become sensitive to them. Marketing often appeals to forced empathy. Humanitarian organizations employ it when they make us aware of the situations of certain people and groups. Their ads also often arouse our emotions and compassion, so that we buy certain products.

This strategy isn’t new. However, it isn’t enough simply to appeal to the emotions of others. In the kind of negotiation that seeks to reach agreements, we have to know how to communicate and apply forced empathy.

Leader woman speaking about forced empathy
Forced empathy makes others see that we all benefit from helping each other.

When negotiating with other people it’s key to ask them questions to get them to put themselves in our shoes.

How to apply forced empathy

You can train yourself in forced or tactical empathy. As you become more proficient in this skill, you’ll find that many things change. For instance, you’ll be able to make yourself understood, expose your own needs, and get others to put themselves in your shoes and walk with you. In fact, once you know how to appeal to the emotions of others, you’re already halfway to mastering the art of negotiation.

Here are some strategies that’ll help you develop the art of forced empathy:

1. Ask questions that start with “how” and “what”

How do you think I’m feeling? What would you do in my situation? Forced empathy is activated in the other person through questions with which you make them understand your position. The more questions you ask them, the more they’ll be forced to reflect.

2. Show that your desire is to connect, understand, and reach agreements

For this tool to become a strategy of power, you must exhibit a conciliatory attitude. You must be open, understanding, and positive. You mustn’t fall into the trap of reproaches and attacks. The other person should perceive in you the strong desire to connect with them and find a solution.

3. Be emotionally honest

Negotiators know that repressing emotions damages the entire process of reaching a solution. Therefore, you have to know how to regulate them. On the other hand, if you feel fear, sadness, or disappointment, you must express it and make them see how you’re feeling. Despite your discomfort, you want to reach an optimal resolution for both parties.

Expressing your emotions humanizes you and facilitates mutual connection.

4. Appeal to the other person’s positive memories and feelings

Do you remember how much fun we had on that trip? I think you know that, deep down, you’re a brave person who knows how to face problems. Think of how much we’ve been through before and worked it out.

Although it’s true that you must be sincere about what you feel, the dialogue must always be oriented toward positive and hopeful dimensions. Those that, sooner or later, facilitate an agreement.

A really effective strategy in forced empathy is to appeal to the other person’s positive emotions. It’s a way of reducing tension as well as influencing and manipulating from a position of kindness and trust.

5. Understand their fears and needs

To awaken empathy in the other person, you must first refine your own skills. This will result in the kind of finely choreographed dance that really works when negotiating and dealing with conflict.

Clarifying the fears, anxieties, desires, and needs of the other person is paramount. In fact, it’s only when you know what’s inside the person in front of you, that you’ll achieve a connection with them. Then, gradually, they’ll come over to your side and empathize with you.

As we mentioned earlier, this technique requires practice. It isn’t easy. It isn’t achieved in a couple of days or even weeks. However, as you become more skilled in the ins and outs of forced empathy, your relationships will become more satisfying. In fact, trying it won’t only be worthwhile, but it could change your life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Chung YW, Im S, Kim JE. Can Empathy Help Individuals and Society? Through the Lens of Volunteering and Mental Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2021 Oct 20;9(11):1406. doi: 10.3390/healthcare9111406. PMID: 34828452; PMCID: PMC8623346.
  • Schlembach, Raphael & Clewer, Nicola. (2021). ‘Forced empathy’: Manipulation, trauma and affect in virtual reality film. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 24. 136787792110078. 10.1177/13678779211007863.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.