Facing an Email Negotiation? Take a Proactive Approach

Effective email negotiators tackle the medium’s pitfalls head-on, new research finds.

By on / Negotiation Skills

As a format for negotiating complex deals, email has a bad reputation. Negotiators are more likely to deceive one another when using email, and they have trouble building trust and rapport in email messages. Furthermore, some research has found that negotiators achieve less joint gain and are less satisfied with their outcomes when negotiating over email as compared with face-to-face negotiations.

At the same time, email can be an irresistible format for parties who face time and distance constraints, particularly in international negotiations. Negotiating via email allows parties to craft their messages carefully and overcome time differences.

If email is an appealing or necessary tool in some of your negotiations, how can you overcome its weaknesses and improve your and your counterparts’ success and satisfaction? Jennifer D. Parlamis of the University of San Francisco and Ingmar Geiger of the Freie Universität Berlin examined this question in a recent study. They paired graduate students in the United States with peers in Germany for a business-negotiation simulation between a buyer and a seller in which parties could both claim value for themselves and create value to share. The pairs were given 10 days to negotiate an agreement and then answered a survey that included questions about their satisfaction with the outcome.

Analyses of the transcripts revealed that participants benefited from the following three behaviors in their email negotiations:

1. Proactive media management.

When parties anticipated and managed potential pitfalls caused by negotiating via email, they achieved more joint gain than those who merely tried to address problems related to email communications, such as missed emails or a lack of response, as they cropped up. So-called proactive medium-management behaviors included suggesting how to manage time and language differences, rephrasing information that was unclear, and making explicit suggestions about expectations. Those who were more proactive about managing the process were more satisfied with their agreements than those who were more reactive to problems that emerged.

2. Value-creating behaviors.

Negotiators who engaged in classic value-creating moves, such as making multi-issue offers, suggesting compromises and creative solutions, and noting similar and divergent interests, also increased the gain achieved within a pair.

3. Close contact.

The more negotiators communicated with one another, the more value they claimed, suggesting that active engagement in the process of negotiation via email is critical to success in this medium.

A focus on the facts

Contrary to past findings, relationship-building behaviors, such as engaging in friendly chitchat or disclosing information about themselves, did not improve email negotiators’ outcomes or their satisfaction in this study. Parlamis and Geiger speculated that the one-shot nature of the negotiation was partially responsible for this result: Because the participants had no expectation of negotiating with one another again, they may not have put much effort into building the relationship. In addition, 10 days may have been too short a time for the negotiators to have begun getting to know one another as individuals. The results suggest that when involved in one-shot email deals, such as a negotiation over the price of a used car, we may be better off focusing more on value-creating moves than on trying to build rapport.

Another surprising result of the study was that the emotions negotiators expressed in their emails had little effect on their outcomes. Negotiators are often cautioned that email communication heightens the chances for misunderstanding, conflict, and emotional outbursts (in the form of “flaming”) due to a lack of verbal and visual cues. But the results of this study point to a possible hidden benefit of negotiating via email, namely that displays of anger and other negative emotions may be easier to brush aside in emails than they are in face-to-face talks, thus allowing negotiators to stay focused on the task at hand.

Similarly, competitive, value-claiming behaviors (such as focusing on facts and positions) had less of a detrimental impact on joint gain within pairs in this study than is typically the case in face-to-face negotiations, perhaps because negotiators may communicate more explicitly and productively about facts and figures in emails than they do in person.

The benefits of vigilance

By staying engaged, active, and connected during email negotiations, these study results suggest, we may be able to largely avoid the misunderstandings, negative emotions, and disengagement that sometimes characterize online talks. You might increase your odds of skirting these pitfalls by making a commitment with your counterpart to email regularly and to openly share information that could lead to value creation throughout the course of your negotiation.

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