How to Negotiate Online

There are different challenges for negotiators seeking to create value and rapport when negotiating online

By on / Negotiation Skills

negotiate online

International negotiators are often faced with the problem of how to overcome cultural barriers to communication. When you communicate in person, social norms – including body language, manners, and physical appearance – guide your behavior and ease the process. A common environment can facilitate understanding as well. Over the telephone, the speaker’s intensity, speed, and inflection provide useful social information. Here are some tips on how to negotiate online and building a rapport with your counterpart at a distance.

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Skills for Bargaining at a Distance when you Negotiate Online

As a consequence, face-to-face and telephone interactions generate greater social awareness and greater stability and cooperation than do online interactions. How do you transfer these rapport-building social cues to negotiate online?

How to Overcome Cultural Barriers to Communication – Social Norms Are Lacking

Sometimes, especially in cross-cultural negotiations, social norms can be unclear. When negotiators are having trouble relating, they need to pay close attention to each other for hints about how to behave.

Here, online negotiators face a distinct handicap. When the only cues available are words typed on a screen, you’ll have trouble reciprocating the other side’s style.

Do you use capital letters in your email messages, scatter them with emoticons, or chat about the weather?

These are all matters of personal preference.

What’s more, the speed of electronic communication lends itself to short, direct messages. This lack of finesse may be fine for brief, factual exchanges but becomes a handicap in collaborative negotiations requiring reflection and discussion and complicates negotiator strategies on how to overcome cultural barriers in communication.

A U.S. and a European company embarking upon a joint venture relied primarily upon online negotiations during their start-up phase and quickly ran into trouble.

The U.S. team was supposed to provide technology to the venture, and the European team was to offer contacts to potential customers. While their basic responsibilities were relatively clear, the negotiators had never met in person. Language differences hindered effective telephone contact, and early electronic exchanges only accelerated the confusion. Well into the negotiation, participants still felt as if they didn’t “know” one another.

The impersonal nature of their interactions barred progress, and the venture stalled.

People tend to reveal information honestly when communicating in person, and the receiver usually believes and acts on that information. By contrast, people who negotiate online tend to hold back private information. When they do open up, the receiver is often leery about responding in kind.

Negotiation research studies have shown that information exchanged over electronic media such as e-mail is less likely to be true, less likely to be relevant and clear, and therefore less informative and useful than similar information exchanged face to face.

“I think I write thoughtful emails, and I’m frustrated because I don’t think people read them thoughtfully,” one senior manager at a start-up incubator told us. Bluffs and threats also increase in email, a tendency that can culminate in “flaming” – shooting off vitriolic messages without pausing to think about the consequences.

Executives often receive more than 100 emails each day, ranging from the trivial to the crucial. As we all struggle to keep up with the constant flow of data, it’s not surprising that trusting, collaborative online negotiations are rare.

What skills do you use to negotiate online? Share your methods in the comments.

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “How to Negotiate Successfully Online,” by Kathleen L. McGinn and Eric J. Wilson for the March 2004 Negotiation newsletter.

Originally published in 2013.

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No Responses to “How to Negotiate Online”

  • The future in high schools (and even grade schools) is to teach these skills early (and often with further improved writing skills too). Too many deals fail when made (and fail to be made at all) by incomplete and uncertain email exchanges. Will this improve over time? We should all hope so as the world will be better for it.

  • Robert L.

    I agree with you. I had an important business relation that went south because we never met physically. Regional Sales Rep usually understand the face to face value of regular meeting. Thanks

  • Dwayne G.

    Are any of your programs on negotiation (PON) offered online for those of us who don’t have the time to travel to Harvard due to our busy schedules? I thought “How to Negotiate Online” was such a program.

  • Stefan K.

    Even though they are not world changing, we have identified and developed the following best-practice models in classroom simulations as well as in practice:

    1. Lay down rules on how to communicate and negotiate in online projects (maximum length of emails, clear expectations in which time to reply to emails, courtesy code, etc.).

    2. Give people a face. Introduce teams at the beginning of an online negotiation process with pictures, a short description of their skills and backgrounds, personal information, hobbies, ambitions, family, etc.

    3. Regularly summarize the most important facts: Weekly newsletters (onepager) with milestones, achievements, remaining hurdles, next steps, etc.

    4. Keep overview: Work with short, concise tables (integrated in the emails or as an attachment). Columns with questions or tasks, interests, alternatives, answers and decisions.

    5. Focus on people: From time to time: Bring virtual teams together in video conferencing

    Stefan Kühn


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