With face-to-face negotiations currently hazardous to our health, businesspeople across the world have switched to Zoom meetings, Skype calls, Google Hangouts, and other forms of videoconferencing. In addition to enabling social distancing, videoconferencing seems at first glance to have all the advantages of in-person meetings. It eliminates the costs of meeting face to face, including travel expenses. It also allows people to learn from each other’s visual and verbal cues: Through laughter, frowns, raised voices, and hand gestures, negotiators can build rapport and understanding. And videoconferencing enables negotiators to jointly view and discuss documents, slides, and videos.
Yet negotiating via video is not the same as being there, writes Creighton University School of Law professor Noam Ebner in a chapter in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference (DRI Press, 2017). To realize the benefits of negotiation in business during the COVID-19 era, consider the following four limitations identified by Ebner, which suggest key negotiation strategies in business communication.
1. Limited Visibility
When videoconferencing, we see less of the other person and their environment than we do when negotiating in person. Individuals typically appear as “talking heads”—that is, only their heads and upper torsos show on the screen. We also can’t see what’s going on in their environment off camera. If the other party is looking offscreen, are they paying attention or perhaps hiding something relevant to the negotiation?
In addition, a weak Internet connection or poor technology can result in a grainy or choppy image that makes it difficult to read a counterpart’s facial expressions. Background noise or a “busy” background may also cause distractions.
Moreover, it’s typically impossible for negotiators to truly make eye contact during a videoconference, notes Ebner. Because computer cameras tend to be located at the top of the screen, when we stare at our screen, we appear to be looking downward rather than into our counterpart’s eyes. This lack of eye contact might impair negotiators from building trust and rapport.
To compensate for such barriers to negotiation, try to keep your hand gestures within the frame so that your counterpart can see them. In addition, you should strive to minimize sound and visual distractions on your end of the call. Make sure the area behind you is neutral and professional, and don’t forget to dress for business. Finally, just because you can multitask during a videoconference doesn’t mean you should; resist the urge to check your e-mail or attend to other matters offscreen, when possible.
2. Technical Difficulties
With videoconferencing, technical difficulties are par for the course. It’s not unusual to have trouble linking up or to suddenly lose audio and/or video in the middle of a meeting. Such glitches can interrupt the flow of a negotiation or leave us feeling irritated, which could keep us from negotiating at our best. Practice using new videoconferencing apps before important meetings, but keep in mind that technical difficulties may still crop up.
3. Privacy and Security Challenges
When the privacy of a negotiation is paramount, videoconferencing may pose special concerns, notes Ebner. Although the possibility of being secretly recorded is a risk in any type of negotiation, video negotiations may be especially easy for your counterpart—or perhaps some other interested party—to record. In addition, there could be others listening in and perhaps even advising your counterpart offscreen. To avoid such negotiation traps, when security is critical but trust is low, you may want to wait to negotiate until you can do so in person.
4. Potential Heightened Awareness of Differences
Ebner highlights one difference between in-person and video negotiations that most of us likely haven’t thought about. When we negotiate in person, we see our counterpart, but not our own face. By contrast, when we negotiate via videoconference, we typically see both our counterpart’s face and our own face on our screen. Consequently, videoconferencing may make any obvious visual differences between us and the other party—gender, race, age, culture, and so on—more salient. Research is needed, but we might rely more on stereotypes about one another as a result.
If this is a concern, take time at the start of an online negotiation to engage in small talk, which could lead you to identify commonalities and see past superficial differences. Or you might try to defuse negative stereotypes by commenting on the positive aspects of diversity, as Ebner recommends: “Isn’t it great that technology allows people from such different places to do business together?”
What other advantages and pitfalls have you noticed when negotiating via videoconference?