Closing Empathy Gaps

Understanding values and interests can move things in the right direction

January 10, 2018 Photo

From intra-family quarrels and disagreements between friends to business disputes, clashes between employers and employees, deadlocks between members of different political parties, and litigated cases of all kinds, what lies at the heart of conflict is often not that which is expressed or articulated. This may lead individuals, attorneys, parties, and other stakeholders to view their differences not merely as speedbumps, but rather as insurmountable obstacles.

To an impartial and objective observer such as a mediator, however, it is often apparent that there may be a significant amount of overlap—or at least no actual conflict—between the parties’ underlying needs, interests, and values. What creates the conflict is instead the parties’ implementation of vastly different strategies to achieve those interests. Understanding the underlying values and interests of your negotiating partner and reframing the argument to appeal to those values and interests can lay the groundwork for successful bridge-building.

What’s Your Ethical Code?

Social psychologist Matt Feinberg of the University of Toronto and sociologist Robb Willer of Stanford University have conducted studies on how people of differing political persuasions can shift the perspective of their conversation partners, as noted in their research study entitled, “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?” which appears in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from October 2015:

Much of contemporary American political rhetoric is characterized by liberals and conservatives advancing arguments for the morality of their respective political positions. However, research suggests such moral rhetoric is largely ineffective for persuading those who do not already hold one’s position because advocates advancing these arguments fail to account for the divergent moral commitments that undergird America’s political divisions.

It has been theorized that this is due to a moral “empathy gap”—the inability to comprehend moral world views different from one’s own. This gap prevents individuals from achieving the perspective needed to craft an argument that appeals to the convictions of those with different moral values.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of Feinberg and Willer’s study is that the same moral arguments “reframed to appeal to the values of the intended audience (those who typically oppose the political position that the messenger is arguing in favor of)” were typically more effective.

For example, the researchers posed the question of whether English should be the official language of the United States. The more liberal the participants were, the more likely it was that they would be persuaded by a “fairness” argument, which stated that making English the official language would lead to more fair outcomes for immigrants and help them avoid discrimination. The more conservative the participants were, the more likely it was that they would be persuaded by a “group loyalty” argument, which stated that the English language is something that unifies Americans and is a fundamental part of a larger cultural assimilation process.

The authors conclude:

Morality contributes to political polarization because moral convictions lead individuals to take absolutist stances and refuse to compromise. Recognizing morality’s influence on political attitudes, our research presents a means for political persuasion that, rather than challenging one’s moral values, incorporates them into the argument. As a result, individuals see value in an opposing stance, reducing the attitudinal gap between the two sides. This technique not only substantiates the power of morality to shape political thought but also presents a potential means for political coalition formation.

Implications for Negotiation and Mediation

Whether you are a mediator, an attorney, or a claims representative, the same question applies: What do you need to do to be a good negotiator?

First, listen to understand rather than to respond. Ask questions that will take you past stated hardline positions and try to uncover that which may not be articulated.

Second, keep in mind that it is not necessary to agree or to affirm the “correctness” of your negotiating partner’s underlying interests.

Third, identify weaknesses or vulnerabilities in your case. Presumably, you already know your strengths. If there are potential weaknesses, now may be a good time to re-evaluate your position.

Fourth, attempt to reframe your argument in such a way that it will satisfy not someone who thinks like you, but instead the identified values, needs, or interests of your negotiating partner.

All in all, whether it boils down to a fundamental moral value such as loyalty or fairness, a specific need such as recognition, or an underlying interest such as financial security, these are the areas that lend themselves to building bridges and closing the empathy gap.

We could all benefit from a little bit more of that these days.

About The Authors
Multiple Contributors
Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger is senior claims examiner at Markel Corporation. She can be reached at

Sasha S. Philip

Sasha S. Philip, J.D., is a mediator and arbitrator with Philip Mediation. She can be reached at

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