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Online Negotiation Strategies: Email and Video-conferencing

By Katherine Shonk, published with permission of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Online negotiation has become ubiquitous, as it allows us to negotiate across the miles cheaply and quickly. Yet online negotiation creates special challenges. With email, instant messaging, and text messages, negotiators typically lack visual, verbal, and other sensory cues to interpret how their counterpart is feeling. And while videoconferencing—via Skype, Google Hangouts, and so on—adds many of these cues to the picture, it’s still an imperfect form of online negotiation. Fortunately, recent writing has provided some guidance on how to negotiate online.

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Reading through the Lines

Research on how emotions affect negotiation shows that people are less adept at conveying their emotions via email than they think they are. In a study published in the journal Group Decision and Negotiation, researchers Christoph Laubert (Freie Universität Berlin) and Jennifer Parlamis (University of San Francisco) studied how effective negotiators are at detecting specific emotions conveyed via email, such as empathy, embarrassment, anger, interest, and contempt. In one experiment, two trained data coders who independently studied the same transcripts of email negotiations agreed on which emotions study participants expressed only about 22% of the time.

In another experiment, participants in a negotiation simulation also coded the emotions in the email messages they received; they, too, interpreted their counterparts’ emotions very differently than a trained coder did. “[O]ur research suggests that email has quite a long way to go before it can be used in a way where emotions function as an extra channel for solving problems,” conclude Laubert and Parlamis.

How can we improve our ability to read one another’s emotions in email and other forms of online negotiation? First, rather than assuming a counterpart will read between the lines (“Is this the best you can do?”), strive to state your emotions explicitly (“I’m feeling impatient about our progress”). Second, check in with counterparts regularly to see how they’re feeling: “I got a sense that my last proposal upset you. Is that right?” Third, if possible, meet in person or pick up the phone occasionally for an emotional check-in.

Limitations of Videoconferencing

As compared to email and phone negotiations, videoconferencing is widely perceived as a “rich” medium for online negotiation because it allows people to learn from each other’s visual and verbal cues. But in a chapter in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference (DRI Press, 2017), Creighton University School of Law professor Noam Ebner highlights a number of drawbacks of videoconferencing relative to in-person negotiations—as well as negotiating techniques and skills to help overcome them:

  1. Limited visibility. When videoconferencing, we see less of the other person and their environment than we do when negotiating in person, and we also can’t see what’s going on outside the narrow frame. To compensate for such visual deficits, keep your hand gestures within the frame so that your counterpart can see them. In addition, minimize sound and visual distractions on your end as much as possible. To help manage the effects of power in negotiation, you should also make sure the area behind you is neutral and professional, and be sure to dress for business. Finally, resist the urge to check your e-mail or attend to matters offscreen.
  2. Technical difficulties. Anyone who videoconferences regularly knows that technical difficulties are par for the course. It’s not unusual to have trouble linking up or to suddenly lose audio and/or video during a meeting. Such glitches may interrupt the flow of a negotiation or leave us feeling irritated, which could keep us from negotiating at our best. Practice using new videoconferencing apps before important meetings, but keep in mind that technical difficulties may still crop up.
  3. Privacy and security challenges. When the privacy of a negotiation is paramount, videoconferencing may pose special concerns, notes Ebner. Although the possibility of being secretly recorded is a risk in any type of negotiation, video negotiations may be especially easy for your counterpart—or perhaps some other interested party—to record. In addition, there could be others quietly listening in and perhaps even advising your counterpart offscreen. For this reason, when security is critical but trust is low, you may want to make an extra effort to negotiate in person.

When it comes to capitalizing on the benefits of negotiation in business, online negotiation offers unparalleled convenience, but the potential costs are clear. To manage them, try to combine phone and online negotiation with face-to-face meetings, when possible.

What challenges have you faced in online negotiation and how have you managed them?


Katie Shonk

Katherine Shonk is the editor of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter, a monthly source of negotiation advice for professionals published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She is also a research associate for Harvard Business School and was formerly employed by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern… MORE >

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