To state the exceedingly obvious, your teams probably spend a large proportion of their time communicating with customers, suppliers and internally within their organisation. The need for these multiple communications has existed as long as business has, which is hundreds of years. For the record, the longest running business still in existence today is Kongo Gumi, a construction company that was set up in 548 AD. For sure, the execs of the 6th century would have been communicating with each other as much as the execs of today.
But over the last 50 years the way your teams contact people and have conversations has evolved in a way that could never have been imagined by past generations. This is of course because technology has become absolutely integral to the way that we communicate, with people in business using ever-evolving tech platforms with which to do so. Meetings have been replaced with teleconferences and spoken conversations (whether face-to-face or on the phone or Skype) have been replaced with emails and texts.
Relationships have changed because of these new mediums, and negotiation has had to evolve too. When negotiating in person the psychology, tactics, and strategies of negotiation are well studied and practiced. Conversely, the answers to questions raised by negotiating electronically are less clear and can be contradictory.
The research on email negotiations is predominantly focused on two areas – 1) the theories of psychological “closeness”; and 2) the richness of media and information. Two main problems have been identified: lack of information, and/or lack of quality information; and lack of social cues, creating ambiguity in how to behave.
If the “richest” media is categorised as a face-to-face meeting – where feedback is immediate, social cues are clear, body language can be read, and tone of voice can be judged – then text and email are the lowest on the “richness” scale. Regardless of whether you negotiate internally or externally, negotiating in person allows a high level of perception and creates psychological “closeness” between the two parties. This allows for the internal understanding that the person on the other side of the table is in fact a human being, and puts the negotiator in a position where they can identify this and apply appropriate judgement to the negotiation in order to maximise the deal.
Holding negotiations electronically via email or text removes this psychological “closeness” and means that all “human-ness” is removed from the interactions. Many social cues are filtered out and creating a meaningful relationship with the other party becomes challenging. Indeed, studies have shown that when negotiating electronically, people often display more aggressive behaviour – which is perhaps attributable to lack of social cues. Ambiguous information conveyed through this medium is more likely to be interpreted as negative, and therefore more likely to provoke a negative response and conflict.
You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of this. Social platforms such as Twitter abound with examples of people (who may otherwise have no history of antisocial behaviour), actively “trolling” others whose comments posted online they dislike or disagree with. They feel empowered to do so due to the remoteness that electronic communication can provide.
But as with most technological advancements, there are also benefits to negotiating electronically. The lack of social cues, time constraints and perceived power, removes pressure from the negotiator. This can result in the negotiator being allowed to freely explore ideas, adjust strategy, gather more information internally, and provide a more considered approach to their next input to the negotiation. Negotiating through email or text can also encourage a more sophisticated level of thinking, mitigating the concerns of getting tied up in the details of the deal. Being able to step away and freely explore ideas within your team can therefore result in more creative ways to find value. This abstract way of thinking leads to more objective and rational solutions.
With all of this in mind, how can you best navigate the advantages and disadvantages of negotiating with technology? As a skilled negotiator you must seek to consciously understand the impact of electronic communication on the negotiations you are undertaking. Judge what it is appropriate to use, and when: choosing to engage in a face-to-face meeting, or actively using your email or text message platforms, can both be highly effective methods of getting the outcome you want.
Fundamentally, it’s important to be “consciously competent” in the use of digital communication when negotiating. Do this by following these three simple principles:
- If relationship building is what is needed, arrange a face-to-face meeting.
- If a more strategic and creative solution needs to be found, consider applying electronic communication to allow further time for thought and consideration.
- If you are hard bargaining, where little or no relationship is needed, why not save on cost and negotiate through electronic means throughout?
A skilled negotiator judges and selects the medium with which they negotiate in the same way that they select strategies, tactics, opening statements, proposals and counter proposals, and so on – mindfully, deliberately and expertly.
In 2011 Esther joined The Gap Partnership where she is now a negotiation consultant, using her deep sector knowledge to support individuals and organisations in their negotiation capability development.
Esther’s clients span a broad range and include local and global, own label and branded goods, and single and multichannel supplier