Ask A Negotiation Expert: Zooming Into the Future of Negotiation

With the Covid-19 pandemic moving many negotiations to video platforms, we’ve all been scrambling to get up to speed in this new medium. Creighton University professor Noam Ebner, the leading expert on online negotiations, answers our questions about how to adapt.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Zoom conference call

Negotiation Briefings: How do video negotiations differ from in-person negotiations, both in terms of what the experience feels like and what we achieve?

Noam Ebner: When it comes to negotiating at a distance, we’re in the middle of a global natural experiment. There are hardly any research findings on negotiating via video yet. So, it should be reassuring that there’s no toolbox or set of tricks that everyone else knows but you. We are all muddling through and will figure it out together; right now, everybody is working off of a little bit o∫research, intuition, and anecdotes.

That said, how the process feels will depend on what you’re used to. Research conducted by Jennifer Parlamis [University of San Francisco] and Ingmar Geiger [Aalen University, Germany] on email negotiations shows that simple experience in using the medium will improve your results,
and the same can be expected of video negotiations.

Even people who frequently negotiate using video have been discovering new aspects of the process since the pandemic started and the whole world jumped onto video. One example is so-called Zoom fatigue: the sense of depletion that we get from being in video-based group meetings and one-on-one conversations all day long. People are starting to experience a draining of energy that they didn’t necessarily experience when they had long days of in-person meetings or an occasional video-based meeting.

Research is showing that communicating via video imposes a cognitive burden on us. There is a cognitive clash between reality and our expectation that it’ll feel just like being together in a room. When we lose some of our trepidation about negotiating via video, two things happen. First, we’re only seeing what’s in the video “box,” but we have the illusion that we’re seeing it all—body language, expressions, different angles. We create mental images to fill in for what’s missing.

Second, we’re faced with new cognitive tasks. For example, in most video calls, there is a slight video or audio lag—maybe just an eighth of a second. We don’t notice it, but our minds do. Our brains try to piece together what someone said with a facial expression that isn’t matching up. You hear something, then receive their smile too late. Your brain tries to adjust. All of this is very taxing. Brain scientists are trying to figure out just how this affects us.

To take another example, we’re used to seeing humans at a certain set of proportions. Now we find ourselves speaking to giant heads. For our primal brains, on a level we don’t consciously recognize, there’s something threatening about that, as if they’re getting in our space—literally, in our face!—with a spear or a club. Our fight-or-flight instincts, functioning covertly, tax and slow down other brain functions.

NB: How can we try to overcome such drawbacks?

NE: First, we need time off. If you’re working a full day on videoconference, every moment you can turn off your video camera or look away from the screen will be beneficial. You might try to build such breaks into your negotiations: “Let me think about that. I’m going to switch off my video while I review the documents.” People will understand why you wouldn’t want them looking at you while you’re trying to concentrate.

Second, the default setting in most video platforms has us seeing ourselves as we talk. This is a fundamentally unnatural form of interpersonal communication. We don’t yet know how this affects negotiation, but it seems likely to increase self-awareness. Whatever we see about ourselves will be magnified, such as any hang-ups we have about our physical appearance. My sense is that we would do well to avoid looking into our own eyes while negotiating with others. Some video platforms allow you to hide your video so that you can focus on the other person.

Third, rapport building remains important when negotiating via video, yet we need to be more intentional about it. Luckily, the situation we’re all in offers opportunities to connect. “How are things where you are?” is a natural question to lead off with during the pandemic. It’s easy to be empathic when someone tells you what they’re facing. We can also raise the strangeness of the situation: “I’d hoped to meet you in person, but I’m sure we can still reach a great deal. The process may be a little strange, but I hope you’ll be patient with me.” In this way, you prime your counterpart— and yourself, too—to recognize the differences of video-based negotiation and the patience you’ll need to deal with hiccups. Down the line, you might say, “Maybe this isn’t coming over because of the medium, so let me expand on that to make sure we understand each other.” Remind the other person that the unnatural setting may be affecting your communication and rapport.

Fourth, be very aware of what you’re showing the other person, in terms of your physical background and body language. For example, I personally gesticulate a lot as I speak, so on video, I intentionally lift my hands so they can be seen in the video box.

NB: Other ways of communicating at a distance are available, including phone calls, emails, and texts. How do you recommend we combine these different formats?

NE: This question is so much better than the questions researchers have been asking for years: “What is the best communication medium?” or “What is the best channel for this negotiation?” as if we use only one communication channel over the course of any negotiation. I use three or four channels just to communicate with the people in my house. So, conducting any negotiation, we need to make good channel choices at many points of this multistage relationship.

Some of the considerations have to do with practicalities: Would this task be best served by a synchronous (live, real- time) or asynchronous (happening at different times) discussion? People work different hours and live in different time zones. The pace of events is also a factor. A two-year negotiation might be fine unfolding largely on email. A hostage negotiation will need real- time communication, such as voice or video, or near-synchronous texting. In addition, different media are simply more common in different places.

Prime your counterpart—and yourself, too—to recognize the differences of video- based negotiation and the patience you’ll need to deal with hiccups.

WhatsApp, for example, is used widely around the world but is catching on slowly in the United States.

Think about how you can bring your best self to each stage of the negotiation. Research has shown that face-to-face interaction and, likely, video work better for “storytellers”— people who express themselves emotionally, through stories and anecdotes. Text-based communication, such as email, may be more comfortable for so-called engineers—people who communicate more through data and logic.

NB: Facial expressions are important in communication. Any thoughts on how face masks might affect in-person negotiations?

NE: As human beings, we strain to pick up as much information as possible from other people and our environment. Consider how you physically strain to hear your counterpart on a poor phone connection. We don’t only work with what we get, though; we then fill in the blanks by inferring and imagining. That’s what we’re doing now with masks. Our heightened awareness of the micro-cues we can see or sense will help us pick up more than we think, but masks will also cause a range of mistakes when we fill in the blanks improperly. We will get better with practice, just as we did with email.

It can help to paint a picture of our facial expressions while wearing masks: “I wish you could see my smile right now.” We also need to be careful about using humor or sarcasm to try to build rapport. The risks of being misconstrued and causing offense are higher when the person can see only the top of our faces. We can also rely more on hand gestures to convey the emotion.

NB: What have your own experiences been like negotiating online during the pandemic?

NE: I’ve found it’s relatively easy to find opportunities for rapport and empathy. Tragedy offers us opportunities to be human. Everyone is a little more stressed than usual. It might help to mention that at some point or just be aware that you’re meeting people at this difficult stage in all of our lives. Also, I’ve noticed that politics used to be somewhat of a no-go zone in business, but some people are putting their opinions out there more. I’m no exception to this, although I try to remain mindful. That’s an area ripe for connection but also for flare-ups.

Finally, I have the sense that people are finding it hard to picture the future. We talk about the “new normal,” or “when this is all over,” but people have difficulty envisioning a world beyond Covid. I’ve had people ask me to do one-shot deals when they would have planned further ahead in the past. No one is looking more than a few months ahead.

Related Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *