Adapted from “Build Rapport—and a Better Deal,” by Janice Nadler, professor, School of Law, Northwestern University.
In negotiation, rapport is a powerful force that can promote mutually beneficial agreements. Negotiators who already have a good working relationship are fortunate to have rapport built into their interactions. Strangers, however—especially those whose communications are limited to telephone or computer—may unwittingly find themselves engaged in a series of increasingly tense exchanges.
When it comes to building rapport during negotiations, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Negotiators who meet in person gain access to a multitude of important nonverbal cues. Your counterpart’s furrowed brow, for instance, may be an instant signal that the offer you placed on the table is undesirable.
Going the extra mile to attend a face-to-face meeting can promote the kind of information exchange necessary to gain trust and secure a signature on the dotted line. As George Anders reported in 2006 in the Wall Street Journal, Valero Energy Chairman and former CEO Bill Greehey closed a key acquisition of an Aruban oil refinery in 2004 by visiting Aruba and repeatedly meeting with the country’s prime minister. Though at least one other bidder reportedly offered a higher price, the company was impressed by Greehey’s attention to issues such as pollution reduction and employee benefits.
By contrast, many hallmarks of rapport, such as eye contact and mimicry, are impossible when bargaining remotely. When negotiators have had no prior relationship or contact, communication technologies can perpetuate unfamiliarity and distrust. Negotiators are left imagining a vague, abstract opponent who is unlike themselves and unworthy of an investment of effort. To make matters worse, the greeting rituals of face-to-face interaction, such as small talk and personal disclosure, often fall by the wayside in telephone or e-mail exchanges. E-mail can be a particularly hazardous form of communication. The impersonal nature of e-mail makes it difficult to establish feelings of trust and interpersonal connection, which can lead to misunderstandings and even impasse.
Once you and your counterpart have established rapport in face-to-face meetings, however, using e-mail to build momentum can be economical and convenient. E-mail permits negotiators to craft their messages carefully and to transmit complex, precise, and quantitative proposals.