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.
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.
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.