Part science, part art, face-to-face negotiation is hard enough to master without the COVID curve ball. Unfortunately, time and tide wait for no one, so being stuck in the office or at home doesn’t mean business takes a break. Negotiations must continue, deals must be brokered, and all of it has to be done virtually. So, the question isn’t ‘can it be done?’, since we have no choice. Rather, we should be asking, ‘how can we conduct virtual negotiations effectively?’
A bleak first glance
Studies on virtual negotiations don’t paint a pretty picture. A lack of trust, a lack of rapport and poorer results for all parties concerned – that’s the gist. Methods of impersonal communication, such as text messages and email, can also make us harsher and less tactful, which obviously doesn’t lead to good negotiation. And then there’s the years of research conducted by Stanford that’s found 90% of email communication is misinterpreted. 90%!
This is the landscape in which we have to find a way to work together, as the pandemic has left us no choice. Let’s look at the hurdles of virtual negotiation and the solutions we can adopt to overcome them.
Virtual negotiation hurdles
Hurdle #1: A lack of rapport
If you want a collaborative interaction (and you do), you need to establish rapport. Certain methods of communication don’t greatly allow for this, such as email and text messaging. However, virtual negotiations are best conducted over several types of platforms, so we strongly recommend leaving emails and text messages to later stages and beginning negotiations with a video conference.
No, it’s not the same as physically being in the same space as the other party, but it is far more personal than other non F2F options. Take a few minutes at the outset of the meeting to engage in some small talk and schmooze a little. Believe it or not, it has been shown through studies that a negotiation begun with a little humour leads to better results. Try and find some common ground, perhaps a shared experience both parties can lament over (like a pandemic…).
Once rapport has been established, communicating via email and messaging can be more effective and leaves less room for misinterpretation. Speaking of which…
Hurdle #2: Misinterpretation
At the end of an email, you sign off with ‘thanks’ and send it on its way, genuinely appreciative of the other party’s contribution. At the other end, your counterparts are interpreting that one word as short, dismissive, perhaps even sarcastic. They wonder what’s gone wrong. Negotiation breaks down. If only you’d used an exclamation mark!
Point is, written communication is highly prone to misinterpretation, as that Stanford study has illustrated. But this also extends to phone calls, where we can’t pick up on non-verbal cues and mistakenly read into tone.
There are two ways to combat this. As mentioned in Hurdle #1, start proceedings with a video call where faces are on display and rapport can be built. This brief time where we get to know each other even just a little bit helps us to better interpret emails and messages.
The second thing you can do is have the message looked over by an impartial eye; it’s hard to be objective when you’re directly involved in the communication. If you’re on a phone call, have a non-contributor listen in and take notes on tone and anything else you might not pick up on.
Hurdle #3: A lack of respect
It’s easy to be blunt and dismissive with people we don’t communicate with face to face. Predictably, this has been the experience of many engaged in virtual negotiations. It seems that when we’re faced with a screen we sometimes forget we’re communicating with other humans.
The solution to this is one common to all the hurdles we’ve discussed. Begin talks with a video call. If we see the other party face to face, if we get to know them a little, it’s harder to be blunt and aggressive (intentionally or otherwise) in future communications. It’s also a good idea to include a few video calls throughout the entire negotiation, as we’re far more inclined to be courteous with people when we know there’ll be face-to-face encounters coming.
Virtual negotiations are here to stay
An element of virtual communication was a part of all negotiations for some time before COVID hit, and that will continue to be the case once the pandemic ends. It’s simply too convenient and economical to be dispensed with entirely.
As you can tell from our suggestions, which forms of virtual communication to use and when are pivotal to successful negotiations. Always start with a video call to establish the all-important rapport and make future written communication more natural. And don’t be tempted to do away with emails and texts entirely; they can be brilliant for creative thinking, as the slower response time allows us to contemplate better solutions more effectively than having to come up with something on the spot. The introverted ones are also more likely to contribute via email or text rather than face-to-face, and more opinions and suggestions almost always leads to better outcomes.
Some things, of course, never change. If you don’t feel you or your team is particularly adept at negotiating face-to-face or in any other way, or you feel something is always left on the table, invest in a good negotiation course. It’s a skill which can be taught and used to deliver measurable benefits to your business. Get in touch with Academy of Procurement today and find out how we can help.