Prompting empathy to counter bias

Ross Paull |

‘Perspective-taking’ is a fancy way to describe the active consideration of alternative viewpoints. Put simply, it means to show empathy and doing so can chip away at ‘de-biasing’ one’s thoughts and prevent the use of unhelpful social stereotypes. For example, in negotiating with a Scotsman, a classic stereotype to draw upon would be that he is inherently frugal…why else would he make such a low-ball offer?

Misconceptions can occur when we attribute the observed behaviour of others to their perceived personality traits when, in fact, a more compelling situational explanation may exist.  It could simply be that the other party has a particularly strong alternative to reaching a negotiated agreement with me. Showing empathy involves stepping outside of one’s own experience and imagining the emotions, perceptions and motivations of others. However, problems usually arise for powerful individuals who, generally speaking, are poor perspective-takers because they do not need to rely on the accurate understanding of others to achieve their goals. Imagine the daunting prospect of negotiating with someone like the late Kerry Packer!

Because power is usually in the hands of the time-poor, it is difficult for the holders of power to take the time to consider the perspectives of others and they need tools to prompt them. This is how Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) applications (ODR Apps) can add value in the engagement as screen-to-screen communication is insensitive to power imbalances. ODR Apps can assist weaker parties and allow stronger parties to save face. Also, in the context of negotiation there can be a high degree of uncertainty with a typical assumption being that one’s “opponent” is providing wrong or misleading information in order to secure a better outcome. In the absence of reliable information, we usually resort to ‘heuristics’ (another fancy word) which describes the use of simplifying assumptions that often allow our biases to creep in.

One particularly strong bias is known as the ‘anchoring effect’. In this case, negotiators will anchor to information that is consistent with their opponent’s first offer, creating an already formed expectation. Actively considering the viewpoint of another person allows negotiators to consider information that may oppose the anchor and therefore limit its impact. Better distributive outcomes can result from influencing concessionary behaviour through the ability to understand the interests, alternatives and perspectives of others.

Formulating corrective strategies can compensate for the innate psychological mechanisms that lead to anchoring. In addition to de-biasing, becoming aware of the other side’s interests through perspective-taking allows parties to identify which interests are ‘inconsequential’ and where concessions can be gained. This can help overcome the assumption that the metaphorical ‘pie’ to be distributed is fixed and can lead to more creative solutions that generate mutual gains for both parties. How can ODR Apps employ corrective strategies? Well, to start, they could embed functionality in the process flow that stimulates and prompts participants to consider their underlying interests and those of others. Each could be asked to take time to consider ‘interests’ before being permitted to progress to the next step. By generating an increasing awareness of the benefits of achieving agreement and improving problem-solving behaviour and outcomes, the stimulation of perspective-taking, by asking the parties to list their interests and alternatives, sets the groundwork for a more integrative negotiation.

Lets look at a hypothetical scenario to show how considering each party’s interests can promote empathy. Disputes often arise in family businesses when the topic of succession arises. A trigger point for the discussion is likely to occur when the second generation have children…kids vacuum cash flow, right?…and they become motivated to step up. On the other hand, the first generation founders may be fit and able and reluctant to let go of the reins so bringing up the prospect of a possible transition is bound to be an emotionally-charged, so-called ‘difficult conversation’.

It’s not hard to see that the second generation has underlying interests that centre round the kids and home – sending them to decent schools and paying the mortgage on a larger house, for example. Financial pressures and the need for more income may be the catalyst for the conversation but the welfare of the kids is at the core of their interests.

Prompting the parties to explore and NAME their interests (that often lurk beneath the surface) push them to find areas for mutual discussion. Clearly, in this case, the kids, the grandchildren, are well and truly an interest common for both generations to contemplate. Identifying and naming the grand children as an underlying interest would stimulate empathy from the first generation’s perspective and soften what may be a strong positional stance.