The coronavirus pandemic has changed the meeting and negotiation game. It’s easy to see only the negative, but there are benefits to consider as well. For example, many people found that they could get things done without having to travel hundreds of miles for a small negotiation. In fact, remote meetings save organizations millions of dollars in travel costs, managers hours on planes and trains, and help reduce environmental costs.
If you understand the dynamics of virtual negotiations, you can use them in your favor and close the best deals. When you compare video conferencing to the telephone and other remote negotiation tools, the difference is astounding.
The average business phone call lasts only five minutes. A short meeting can certainly be efficient, but can you imagine falling in love over the phone? When visual cues are missing, it’s very hard to build a trusting relationship. You can’t even see who else is in the room.
In one study, in a simulated face-to-face strike, negotiators were more likely to coordinate an agreement earlier than those standing next to each other (and unable to see each other). The reason is that direct nonverbal (gestures, eye contact, etc.) and paraverbal (mhms, and so on) conversations lead to better connection, increased collaboration, more win-win outcomes, and a more even distribution of the pie.
Women, in particular, achieve better rapport when eye contact is facilitated. For men, face-to-face communication can increase discomfort with another man and may be best reserved for difficult and complex negotiations. In addition, women tend to do better when they negotiate virtually. They find it easier to be more assertive, as online or telephone negotiations reduce the pressure on women to exhibit gender-balanced behavior.
Video conferencing has an interesting advantage over face-to-face negotiations in real life:
When negotiators believe that the other party is not nearby but far away (several thousand meters), more win-win situation is created. The reason for this: distance creates an orientation to the big picture.
The success pyramid is clear: face-to-face negotiations produce the most win-win results, telephone negotiations are next best, and e‑mail communication is third.
FOUR CHALLENGES TO CONSIDER IN ONLINE NEGOTIATIONS
Before we talk about how to solve the most annoying problems related to online negotiations, let’s take a little closer look at what exactly these problems are.
THE MISSING WATER DISPENSER
There is no casual contact: Difficult problems and issues are often resolved in casual conversations in the office, in hallways or at the water cooler. Employees in adjacent offices communicate twice as often as those in offices on the same floor, even if you include email and phone contact.
THE ILLUSION OF THE TALKING HEAD
Your video conferencing partner appears as a talking head or torso, making it impossible for you to observe the body language in the context of the environment. And the talking head sometimes can’t really be “read” if the image pauses, buffers, or lags.
And there’s another problem: It’s almost impossible to make eye contact during a videoconference, especially when using a PC camera, which is usually mounted on top of the monitor. If you look into your counterpart’s eyes on the screen, he will have the impression that you are looking below him. Lack of eye contact makes it difficult to build a trusting relationship. Another interesting point noted by Noam Ebner of Creighton University is the heightened awareness of differences. We not only see the other person’s head, but usually our own as well. This leads to unconscious comparison, which leads to an excessive focus on differences in terms of gender, race, age, culture, etc.
TECHNICAL AND SECURITY CHALLENGES
It often happens that you lose a conference participant or have problems with the microphone or camera. This is annoying and ruins the mood and the course of the negotiation. The World Trade Organization has canceled this year’s biennial meeting, which was scheduled for June in Kazakhstan. The move to a virtual format was ruled out because of technical and security challenges, including the difficulty of providing simultaneous translation, access for all members to a stable Internet connection, vulnerability to hacking, and the possibility of unauthorized recordings. When negotiating sensitive issues, don’t be naïve.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE OBSTACLES AND EVEN TURN THEM INTO ADVANTAGES
You know there are problems associated with online negotiations, but you also know that online negotiations have advantages over face-to-face meetings. Since you can’t make the COVID-19 crisis go away, here are 10 steps you can take to make lemonade out of lemons:
- Start with small talk covering topics that are not relevant to the negotiation. The other person’s background (pictures, furniture) provides ample opportunity to find a topic. As with any communication task, finding common ground is paramount.
- Be aware that everything that surrounds you conveys something about you. Make sure that you and your background have an appearance appropriate to the purpose of the negotiation session.
- To build trust, make eye contact by looking into your computer camera instead of looking at the other person on your computer screen.
- Don’t think you are capable of multitasking. Checking or sending emails (with a bing) will make you a worse negotiator and offend the other party. Remember: you can always tell when the person you are talking to is distracted.
- Comment on the positive aspects of diversity: “Wonderful to see such diverse people and cultures working together to solve such a complex business!
- Combat the “talking head” illusion by politely asking the other person to move further away from the camera so you can see as much as possible. Return this behavior — unless you want to hide your thoughts.
- If you have security issues, get them out of the way first. If you can’t defuse the potentially unstable environment and your issue is sensitive or trust is low, negotiate in person again — even if it means waiting.
- Practice using the video conferencing tool before important negotiations. Make sure all participants have a good Internet connection. Reschedule meetings when necessary.
- Prepare the same way you would prepare for a negotiation in real life. There is no difference.
- Immediately follow up the meeting with an email summarizing the results of the negotiation. Ask the other party to confirm the agreements that resulted from the previous discussion.
The pandemic will eventually pass, but the effects of the pandemic will not. Don’t think the world will return to “business as usual” in a month or two. It won’t. Smart negotiators use the current problem to find future solutions. Building your videoconferencing skills will pay rich dividends.