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Negotiating Over Email: Challenges and Tactics

By Chuck Doran and Vince Lowney

Email is a constant presence in our professional lives. When we find ourselves negotiating via email – whether we’re in an employment negotiation or a discussion with a subcontractor – we face seven major challenges, identified by Noam Ebner in his article “Negotiating via Email.” The following tactics help negotiators mitigate those challenges and find opportunities for success when negotiating over email.

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1. Increased contentiousness

  • Challenge:    Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,” by Sarah Kiesler and Lee Sproull find that when people email, they are less inhibited compared to face to face communication because of the lack of audible and visual cues, increased sense of anonymity, and physical distance. It’s as if they’re protected by steel and windows, like the indignant driver who hurls obscenities from their car. Parties will act tougher, are more likely to issue ultimatums, as well as lie and dissemble. Have you ever pressed send and then had second thoughts?
  • Tactic:    To dissuade this contentious behavior when using email, it is important to emphasize the person behind the emails. By inserting appropriate personal details, you can make yourself seem real in the eyes of the reader and increase empathy. Consciously unmask the recipient of your emails and to take a moment to anticipate how your emails will be received by a person, with feelings and an ego.

2. Diminished cooperation

  • Challenge:    During our interactions, most information is communicated through subtle cues such as body language and tone. The book Silent Messages by Dr. Albert Mehrabian indicates that text only communication such as email only captures 7% of the cues found in face-to-face encounters. Email strips away this layer of information and leaves much of the content of an email up for interpretation. Studies show that negotiators have a much harder time identifying the other party’s interests when communicating via email, which then leads to more self-interested behavior. Combining this shift in behavior with the increased contentiousness discussed above and the ease of walking away from email negotiations could spell disaster.
  • Tactic:    Use interest-based language often and intentionally, both when discussing your own interests and inquiring as to the other party’s interests. Set the tone for collaboration on the process. As you cannot be shouted down, take the stage and present your argument. When presenting a raft of ideas or interlinked proposals, be aware the if the other party doesn’t respond to a point you made, it may be due to information overload. Especially if emails are being drafted on phones or tablets, there can be a disconnect between the information presented and the ability to respond.

3. Reduction in Integrative Outcomes

  • Challenge:    Because of the increased contentiousness and decreased collaboration, email negotiations often have fewer win-win (integrative) characteristics than face to face negotiations. This challenge may be due to the difficulty in building rapport over email and the corresponding reduced trust, but the exact mechanism is still being studied.
  • Tactic:    Consider using multimedia such as charts or graphs to richly show integrative proposals. A graphic that shows a list of options and the different outcomes between parties will be easier to understand and capture the reader’s attention than pure text. Using every email as an opportunity to reframe an issue (which isn’t an option faster dialogue) can also help maintain a focus on integrative solutions.

4. Diminished Privacy

  • Challenge:    In normal negotiations, it is relatively easy to find a private space to negotiate, convey confidentiality formally via a non-disclosure agreement or informally through a lowered voice, and trust that whatever is discussed in the room can only be shared second-hand. With email, however, every word choice could potentially be forwarded or shown to someone you don’t realize is involved in the discussion. Confidential or proprietary information may be accidentally shared through a badly timed “reply-all” click.
  • Tactic:    Spend time considering the address field. Is everyone who is CC’d critical to the negotiation? Would you invite them to the table if the negotiation were in person? Use the lack of privacy to your advantage, whether by referring to previous emails when the other party is being inconsistent, or consulting with colleagues for advice. Be cautious of what you write, because it may end up in the public view.

5. Diminished Trust

  • Challenge:    Studies show that negotiators trust their counterparts far less over email, throughout the negotiation process. While it is harder to identify lies over email, negotiators are also more likely to believe their counterpart is lying – essentially distrusting the wrong person.
  • Tactic:    Try to build rapport early. Make sure to include some light conversation in the beginning and during the negotiation. While this “icebreaking” may be less natural than face to face, it will still serve as a social lubricant. Try to establish some initial face to face contact before negotiating via email and have periodic phone calls or teleconference sessions.

6. Increased attribution and misperception

  • Challenge:    Email makes it easier to fall into the fundamental attribution error: concluding that negative actions or statements made by other parties are due to their inherently flawed character, rather than due to circumstances. Just as someone driving his pregnant wife to the hospital while she is in labor may feel justified, other drivers who see him run through yellow lights may just consider him a terrible person. The difficulty in understanding tone and intention via email exacerbates this tendency.
  • Tactic:    Increase your social presence and remind your counterpart that you are a person, just like them. Write clearly by keeping it short, using summaries, avoiding emoticons early in the conversation, and be aware the writing on a phone may change your style. Have other people read your emails and see if they understand your tone. Be aware that waiting to respond to emails can be viewed negatively. To overcome this, don’t expect your emails to be replied to right away, and try to be prompt in your replies. Be careful with humor – it can be easily misinterpreted.

7. Diminished focus and commitment

  • Challenge:    In a face-to-face negotiation, parties have made an investment to be at the table, whether that be travelling to a specific location or coordinating a time to meet up. Email is also often done in concert with other activities, whether that be surfing the web or making phone calls. People believe they are much better at multitasking than they really are, and it results in decreased retention of previous exchanges and increased confusion.
  • Tactic:    Stay on top of things and keep your counterpart engaged. Overcome time gaps by referring to previous conversations. Be aware and honest of how much you are committing to the negotiation. Stay focused! Make an effort to concentrate on the negotiation if it is important to you. Use the time to reread previous exchanges and close your web browser.

What has been your experience negotiating over email?

To learn more about preparing for upcoming negotiations or improving your negotiation skills, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org for more information.

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