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The Medium Makes the Difference!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Recently I came upon an older article written by Tammy Lenski entitled, “Face to Face negotiation better than e-mail.” (“Lenski”) While the article was originally published in December 2003, its points are probably truer today than fifteen years ago. The last decade and a half has seen an explosion in communication by every means imaginable other than face to face. For this reason, I believe its points are worth revisiting.

Ms. Lenski begins by noting that research in 2000 revealed that 50% of negotiations conducted by e-mail end in impasse while only 19% of negotiations conducted face to face end that way. Indeed, a blog post (“Conflict and Negotiation Case Study: The Pitfalls of Negotiations over Email”) dated September 19, 2017 on the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School’s website (“Blog Post”) makes this same point. Negotiation by e-mail, “…often poses more problems than solutions when it comes to relationships, information exchange, and outcomes in conflict resolution negotiation scenarios.” (Id.)

Both Ms. Lenski and the Blog Post point out that establishing “social rapport via e-mail can be challenging.” (Id. at Blog Post.)  Why? For one thing, as Ms. Lenski points out, we tend to share far less information in an e-mail than we would in a telephone conversation. Not only do we not share information about the subject matter at hand, we do not share personal information, or engage in chit chat. As a result, our negotiations are based on much more limited information and knowledge about the other person. (Id. at Lenski.) Moreover, Ms. Lenski points out that we tend to be more willing to be deceptive in an e-mail than we would be in a face to face negotiation and more willing to escalate a conflict in an e-mail exchange than if we were facing the other person. (Id.)

In a face to face negotiation, we rely heavily for our cues on non-verbal behavior, such as vocal intonations, body language and facial expressions. In a telephone conversation, we cannot rely on the body language and facial expressions (unless we are on Face Time or Skype etc.)  but we do have vocal intonations to rely on. In e-mails, we have none of these cues and so relying on only the printed word, we often misread the signals. (Id.)

A study discussed in the Blog Post points out how easy it is to misread the cues in an e-mail. In that study, “individuals were asked to communicate a series of statements with sarcasm, seriousness, anger, or sadness to either a friend or a stranger via e-mail, over phone or face to face.” ( Blog Post.)  The researchers found that the participants, “… generally overestimated how accurately their recipients would decode the tone, regardless of whether the person was a friend or a stranger…”. (Id.)  This was particularly true with e-mail exchanges.  Thus, more conflict and more impasse!

So, the better way to e-mail exchanges is to start with building personal rapport.  Do so either in person or over the telephone before you start e-mail exchanges.  ( Supra at Lenski.) Also, avoid using a “cc” or copying others on the e-mail as it may send the wrong message that you want the person copied to influence the outcome by putting some pressure on the recipient of your e-mail.  As important, be gracious in your e-mail, thanking the person for her time and put a positive spin on the topic. Finally, but not in the least, if you do find yourself writing a nasty e-mail, do not hit “send”; rather, count to 10, and only after you have calmed down, pick up the telephone to call and discuss it with the other person or better yet, invite her for a cup of coffee to discuss it. (Id. at Lenski.)

In my own day to day navigation of conflicts, I still find that picking up the phone and discussing it rather than trading e-mails work wonders. Decades ago AT & T (when it was solely a telephone provider!) used a line in its commercials that said in effect, “the best relationships are personal.” And the way to do this? Use the telephone (or better yet, in person).

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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