A couple of years ago, a future social engineer had the opportunity to meet the President of the Florida Association of Hostage Negotiators. In the short meeting, she asked him what he would say is the single most important and effective element in negotiating. She was hoping he would give her some Jedi mind trick that she could use on her son to coerce him into keeping his room clean. The answer was simple – “just listen.” A bit disappointed in the simplicity of the answer. She thought, how will listening help with a negotiation scenario? And how could she apply that in her personal life? It turns out, there’s more to “listening” than the word implies. Active Listening is the secret to any successful negotiation. Let’s consider the difference between listening and active listening.

Active Listening

Passive vs. Active Listening

Passive listening mainly involves taking in information without giving much thought to what’s being said. Common words used during passive listening include “hmm,” “I see,” “interesting,” “Oh yeah,” etc. Being a passive listener is not necessarily a bad thing. You are still paying attention and show it through your facial expressions and body language. As a result, the person speaking to you can sense that you are engaged. Passive listening plays a vital role in our day-to-day communication with our family and friends, as well as the people we meet, especially when we are in a social setting. What then is active listening and how can it improve our negotiation skills?

Active listening involves an engaged mind and giving our undivided attention to our counterpart. Rather than listening to hear (or to respond) we are listening to understand our counterpart’s position or point of view. Some active listening techniques include tactical empathy, mirroring, and the use of effective questions. The goal of active listening is to truly understand the thoughts and emotions that the other person is trying to convey. Additionally, it includes making sure they know that we understand. This motivates the person to want to share more of their thoughts and feelings. Let’s take a look as to how we can employ some of these active listening techniques.

Tactical Empathy

You might be familiar with the word empathy. It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. However tactical empathy involves hearing the words our counterpart is saying and trying to identify the emotions that may be influencing them to act in a certain way and that shape their perception.

When we can get a sense of how a situation looks or feels from the other persons’ point of view then we can use empathy in a way that will win their trust. They will sense that we truly understand how they feel. Although this may sound like a simple act, the act of listening without personal judgment requires self-awareness and practice. This is because our natural tendency is to shift our attention inward and silently compare what we have heard to our own logic and views. Practicing tactical empathy prompts us to leave aside our personal opinions and focus on understanding what our counterpart is trying to convey.


According to Christopher Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, the kind of mirroring used in this context is not the physical type of mirroring. For example, you put your hand on your chin and I do the same. It’s simpler yet more effective than that. Mirroring consists of repeating the last one to three words of what somebody just said. You would repeat those last few words with an upward voice infliction as you would a question. This creates a connection and encourages the person to expound or correct your perception. By doing this, you’re essentially telling the other person “I am interested, and I want to know more, so keep talking.”

Effective Questions

We often use conversational questions such as “Really?” and “Are you serious?”. These questions play their role in casual conversations. However, in order to truly understand our counterparts, we need to ask effective questions. These questions usually start with words such as “what”, “how” or “why”. Asking these types of questions will make the person stop and think instead of providing one-word answers. Another benefit of effective questioning is that it makes the other person feel in control. In reality though, you will actually have the upper hand. You will get a closer look at how they see the situation, allowing you to offer solutions or options that will appeal to your counterpart.

Improving Your Active Listening Skills—Why It Matters?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as great listeners and we may be to a certain degree. The truth is, we can all improve on our active listening skills. Being an active listener involves more than sitting in silence as the other person speaks, without any interaction or outward display of empathy. If that were the case, my dog would the best listener ever.

It’s good to remember that even when we are fully engaged in a discussion, we often listen with the intent to respond. For example, as we are listening to the other person, we are often formulating answers in our mind to confirm our own position and viewpoints. Perhaps we’re thinking that by doing this we will come up with the perfect rebuttal and assert our “correctness”. This however hinders true communication. It diminishes our power and situational awareness, making us appear less empathetic and thus less trustworthy.

When we practice ego suspension in our active listening and we listen with the goal to understand the other person’s point of view (whether or not we agree), we can then display true empathy which in turn will build trust, enabling our counterpart to feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment. This will allow for a more successful negotiation every single time.

Listen with a Goal

In summary, active listening is to listen with a goal, the goal of understanding our counterpart. So, whether you are negotiating with clients, your significant other, or even your children, ask yourself -how well do I understand my counterpart’s feelings, thoughts and viewpoints? In the words of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we must “seek to understand before being understood.