A recent study at Case Western University indicates that we can’t think analytically and empathetically at the same time. Most people’s brains automatically choose the proper network, analytical or empathetic, for a given task. Perhaps more importantly, when the chosen brain network springs into action, the other is suppressed.
So which network do we want to use when seeking consensus or attempting to persuade someone? The system of consensus building that I teach, and describe in Bridges to Consensus, requires both empathy and analysis. Does that mean the system can’t possibly work? Au contraire. The recent findings validate the system.
First, the system breaks the process of building consensus down into parts or steps. By following a step-by-step process, we allow our brains to shift networks depending on which is required for the particular step we are performing.
For example, when preparing for a consensus-seeking conversation, we first clarify our interests, those things we really want to gain from the agreement. For the most part, this is an analytical process. I’ve developed “The Three Magic Questions” for this analysis.
The first magic question is, “Why?” Beginning with what we think we want from the other party, we ask ourselves why. Every time we get an answer we ask “Why?” about the answer, and keep going until we can’t broaden the definition of this interest any further. If you are selling a boat, for example, starting with “I want $30,000 for my boat,” and asking why, you might end up with “I want to acquire an RV,” a broader interest with more potential solutions.
However, one of the magic questions, the third, is an empathetic one, “How do we want to feel?” To answer this question, we need to engage our brain’s empathy network. We empathize with ourselves to get in touch with what I call “feeling interests.” (And make no mistake, unrecognized feeling interests often derail otherwise acceptable agreements.) By asking a separate question for this part of the process, we allow the brain to shift from its analytic network to its empathetic network. Getting in touch with your feelings, you might answer, “I want to feel my boat is going to a good home,” or “I want to feel fairly treated.”
Asking successive questions helps the proper brain network to kick in at the proper time and ensures that we identify all of our interests.
When we turn from preparation to actually dealing with the other person, we seek to understand that person’s interests as fully as possible. The way you inspire someone to address your interests is by addressing hers, and you can’t address them unless you understand them. She, too, has material interests. Perhaps she can’t pay more than $10,000 because the rest of her funds are tied up in bonds that don’t mature for a year. She also has feeling interests, e.g. she, too, wants to feel fairly treated. There is nothing more powerful than showing her you understand all her interests.
As my clients and students know, I advise listening to the other party without any mental competition—listening to understand, rather than listening to respond. If you focus solely on what the other person is saying, your brain can shift from thinking analytically while she describes a material interest, to empathizing while she describes a feeling interest.
But if you simultaneously try to craft a reply, you keep your brain in analytical mode and can’t empathize with her at the very time when you can benefit from doing so. The Case Western University study validates this mindful listening practice. After you’ve gained a full understanding of both parties’ interests, your analytical network will actually find mutually acceptable solutions more effectively and efficiently. You might agree that she will pay $10,000 in cash, assign $15,000 worth of bonds to you, and let you use her RV for up to three months until the bonds mature.
Finally, the Case U study supports our practice of slowing down the process, taking breaks, particularly before finally accepting an important agreement. During a break, we can consciously reflect on the proposed agreement, first with one of our brain’s networks, then with the other, to be sure that the agreement passes muster on both material and emotional grounds.