Conflict and Negotiation Case Study: The Pitfalls of Negotiations Over Email

In conflict resolution, face-to-face has advantages over screen-to-screen in negotiations

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conflict resolution online the pitfalls of negotiations over email

Negotiation research suggests that email often poses more problems than solutions when it comes to relationships, information exchange, and outcomes in conflict resolution negotiation scenarios.

First, establishing social rapport via email can be challenging. The lack of nonverbal cues and the dearth of social norms regarding its use can cause negotiators to be impolite and show little concern for their counterparts.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


Email negotiations are also fraught with misunderstanding, both because emotion and tone are difficult to convey accurately and because parties neglect to consider the other side’s perspective. Notably, email communicators are largely unaware of their limitations.

In one study by Justin Kruger of New York University, Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, and Justin Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, individuals were asked to communicate a series of statements with sarcasm, seriousness, anger, or sadness to either a friend or a stranger via email, over phone, or face-to-face.

Individuals generally overestimated how accurately their recipients would decode their tone, regardless of whether the other person was a friend or a stranger, but this deficiency was particularly strong with email. As a result, email often decreases information exchange, thereby leading to an impasse and inefficient agreements compared with negotiations conducted in person.

How do you grapple with concealed information in business negotiations?

In our related conflict resolution article, Concealed Information in Business Negotiations, we discuss a  negotiation role-play simulation, Bullard Houses. Business negotiators not only learn how to deal with counterparts that are concealing information at the bargaining table, but also how, what, and when to reveal critical information during tense, real-life negotiation scenarios.

Drawn from the latest in negotiation research, Bullard Houses is part of the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center’s set of negotiation role play simulations developed to perfecting bargaining and negotiation skills.

Bullard Houses can be run as a one-on-one negotiation simulation between two negotiators or it can be expanded into a team building negotiation exercises pitting two groups of competitive negotiators against one another in a contentious housing dispute.

The following themes are addressed by Bullard Houses attorney/client relations: a negotiator’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), the role of confidentiality in business negotiation, information exchange in negotiations, agents in negotiation, analyzing your counterpart’s messages, grappling with misrepresentation and intentional obfuscation, evaluating objective criteria, the impact of political constraints, and grappling with undisclosed principals.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


Original published in 2012.

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