Adding Value to E-mail Negotiations

By — on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “Make the Most of E-mail Negotiations,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

At a recent social gathering of professionals, the topic of negotiating via e-mail came up. “My work team is constantly shooting e-mails back and forth,” said Sarita. “But since I’m driving and meeting with clients most of the time, I can’t respond until the end of the day. Often I find out they’ve made a decision on an issue I care about without my input. It drives me crazy!”

“After I interviewed for a job I wanted, my potential future boss started negotiating the details with me via e-mail,” said Christine. “I couldn’t figure out if he had offered me the job or if he was trying to put together an offer—his e-mails were very short, and I didn’t want to annoy him by asking what was going on. Then one day he just stopped responding to my messages. I still don’t know what happened!”

Compared to face-to-face talks, negotiations conducted via e-mail can lead to less creative and less satisfying agreements, a number of research studies have found. E-mail negotiations also appear to end in impasse more often than in-person negotiations, as Christine experienced when her negotiating partner simply disappeared.

E-mail messages lack the visual and vocal cues we depend on when hashing out a deal in person. The “mutual invisibility” of e-mail can cause us to become self-absorbed and overly self-interested, traits that can prevent negotiators from exploring each other’s interests and building a better deal, attorney and mediator Noam Ebner and his colleagues write in the chapter of a recent book.

In addition, as Sarita discovered when her work team carried on without her, e-mail negotiations often move at an unpredictable pace, since people can respond (or not respond) when they like. In group negotiations, those who check their e-mail most frequently can end up controlling the discussion. Those who never have a chance to contribute may choose not to abide by the agreement, to the detriment of the group.

When facing an important e-mail negotiation with someone you’ve never met, do whatever you can to meet in person beforehand—or, if that isn’t possible, talk on the phone—with the goal of building rapport. In her research, professor Janice Nadler of Northwestern University found that when pairs of participants engaged in a short, informal phone call prior to negotiating the hypothetical sale of a car, they were four times more likely to reach agreement than pairs who didn’t have the chance to “schmooze” in advance. Even a little friendly banter at the start of an e-mail message can help negotiators work together more creatively.

You should also set ground rules for your e-mail negotiations. If consensus is a worthy goal for your group, you might agree to wait 24 or 48 hours for everyone to have time to weigh in on a decision. When finalizing an agreement, arrange a conference call or a face-to-face meeting to make sure everyone is on board.

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