It used to be that when negotiating counterparts were located far apart, one side or the other would need to get in a car, train, or plane if the parties wanted to do business face-to-face. These days, you only need to set up a videoconference on an app such as Skype or Google Hangout to interact in real time.
At first glance, video conferencing might seem to have all the advantages of in-person meetings with few of the costs, in terms of travel time and expense. Yet in ways large and small, negotiating via video is not the same as being there, writes Creighton University School of Law professor Noam Ebner in a chapter in the forthcoming book The Negotiator’s Desk Reference (DRI Press, 2017). When deciding whether to go the extra mile or negotiate from the comfort of our office, we need to pay close attention not only to the upsides of video conferencing but also to the downsides and look for ways to address them.
The benefits of negotiating via video
Although video conferencing technology has been available for decades, only recently has it become simple and relatively cheap to use. To hold a videoconference, negotiators need little more than an app on their computer or smartphone and an agreement with their counterpart to link up at a certain time and date.
Videoconferencing is widely perceived as a “rich” communication medium because it 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. In addition to allowing parties to communicate both verbally and nonverbally, video conferencing enables them to jointly view and discuss documents, slide shows, and videos.
By comparison, e-mail has been called an “impoverished” medium because negotiators must grasp one another’s meaning through written words alone. As a result, misunderstandings are common and sometimes lead to unnecessary conflict and impasse. Similarly, phone calls lack the visual cues that can tell us, for example, when someone is simply listening intently versus scowling in reaction to what she’s just heard.
The limitations of negotiating via video
Before we replace all our business trips with Skype chats, Ebner recommends that we consider a number of ways in which videoconferences differ from in-person negotiations. Here are four of them:
1. Limited visibility. When video-conferencing, we see less of the other person and his environment than we do when negotiating in person. Individuals typically appear as “talking heads,” with only their heads and upper torsos showing on the screen. We also can’t see what’s going on off camera. If the other party seems to be looking at something offscreen, we may wonder if she’s paying attention or 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. Although research needs to be done on the topic, this lack of eye contact might impair negotiators from building trust and rapport.
To compensate for such visual deficits when negotiating via videoconference, keep your hand gestures within the frame so that your counterpart can see them. In addition, do what you can to minimize sound and visual distractions on your end. Make sure the area behind you is neutral and professional, and dress for business rather than viewing the videoconference as an excuse to be casual. 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 matters offscreen.
2. Technical difficulties. Anyone who videoconferences regularly knows that 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. Even when we’re able to iron out such glitches, they may 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 quietly listening in and perhaps even advising your counterpart offscreen. For this reason, when security is critical but trust is low, you may want to make an extra effort to negotiate 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. Here again, 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 a video 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?”
Overall, videoconferencing offers unparalleled convenience as compared to face-to-face negotiations, but we need to weigh these advantages against the potential costs. One smart solution would be to meet periodically in person and negotiate via video, e-mail, and phone in between the face-to-face meetings.
When e-mail is best
Meeting face-to-face (whether in person or via video) may seem like the gold standard for negotiation, but negotiating via e-mail can offer the following three advantages in certain situations:
- You can type an e-mail at any time of day or night. By comparison, a videoconference may be difficult to set up between parties who are located in very different time zones.
2. Greater precision.
- When you fear tripping up and saying the wrong thing, you may prefer to take the time to carefully craft an e-mail message (or a letter, for that matter). This may be especially important when legal issues are at stake.
3. A more level playing field.
- When people with differing levels of power negotiate, as in the case of a boss and subordinate, e-mail may minimize their awareness of a power imbalance and promote more equitable outcomes.