In Online Negotiations, Can You Get A Word In Edgewise?

For those who feel drowned out in business discussions, remote negotiations may be making matters worse.

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

This past May, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on conference calls rather than in person. To keep chaos in check, Chief Justice John Roberts imposed order on the typically freewheeling process of justices questioning attorneys representing both sides of a case: He began calling on justices one by one, in order of seniority, and tried to give them roughly equal speaking time. Despite this effort to be evenhanded, over the course of 10 cases, Roberts disproportionately interrupted the three female justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor), even when they spoke the same amount or less than their male colleagues, according to an analysis by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor Tonja Jacobi and University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman.


Women tend to get less speaking time in workplace and business discussions, abundant research shows. Although people tend to perceive women as being more talkative than men, men actually talk more—and interrupt more—than women do, Adrienne Hancock and Benjamin A. Rubin of George Washington University found in a 2014 study. Men who speak more often are perceived as more competent, whereas women who speak more often are perceived as less competent, Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll found in her research. Even on Twitter, men are retweeted twice as often as women, although women make up the majority of the platform’s users.

Such inequities may be exacerbated when we negotiate at a distance. Because body language and other nonverbal cues can be more difficult to read in online formats, meeting attendees may be more likely to interrupt one another, with women often losing the battle for speaking time.

Or maybe we’re just noticing the disparity more. After all, these challenges existed well before we all went online, Simmons School of Management professor emerita Deborah Kolb told Negotiation Briefings. From 2011 to 2017, male Supreme Court justices and attorneys arguing before the Court interrupted the female justices twice as often as the male justices, a study by Jacobi and Goodwin Procter LLP associate Dylan Schweers shows.

In a society where men have historically been granted higher status than women and are stereotyped as assertive, women’s ideas and opinions tend to be undervalued in the workplace and beyond. As a result, men are more likely to dominate conversations, women are interrupted more frequently, and men are sometimes given credit for women’s contributions.

In her 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” writer Rebecca Solnit ruefully recounted frequent experiences she’d had in which men condescended to her in conversation by assuming she didn’t know things she did, a phenomenon that came to be known as “mansplaining” when the essay went viral. The terms “manterrupting” and “bropriating” (in which a man takes credit for a woman’s idea) have also caught on.

Of course, as Solnit acknowledges, many men listen respectfully to women and value their ideas. But the cumulative impact of feeling marginalized and overlooked takes a toll—both on women in the workplace and on the organizations deprived of their good ideas.

Interruptions, dismissiveness, condescension, and other conversational put-downs are particularly common when one party holds more power or status than the other—whether because of their gender, race, age, position, or other difference. Such behaviors are part of the “shadow negotiation”—the unspoken dynamics that hum beneath the surface of both formal business negotiations and informal workplace negotiations, including how well we treat each other and whose voice is heard, write Kolb and Judith Williams in their book The Shadow Negotiation: How Women Can Navigate the Hidden Agendas That Determine Bargaining Success (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

There are three types of strategies, or “moves,” that women and others who are at risk of being undervalued and overlooked can take to guide the shadow negotiation, according to Kolb and Williams. Power moves can be used to show reluctant negotiators the value of negotiating with you. Process moves can counteract silencing—when you’re being interrupted, dismissed, or ignored. And appreciative moves can “unstick” negotiations stalled by conflict, suspicion, or impasse.

1. Plant the seeds of your ideas.

By working behind the scenes, you may be able to make it easier for your ideas to be heard, according to Kolb and Williams. In Everyday Negotiation, they give the example of a manager, Pat, whose fellow managers tended to tune her out during annual staff reviews because they felt she pushed her ideas too hard. As a result, her team was at risk of being overlooked in decisions about merit raises, which would reflect poorly on Pat.

As the next staff review approached, Pat made a point during lunches with her fellow managers to ask about openings in their departments. She’d then talk up her star employees and say it was too bad they weren’t available. By informally promoting her team members in this manner, Pat earned name recognition for her top staff and was able to make herself heard in the staff review without needing to oversell. This type of process move may be especially beneficial to women, who risk a backlash when they take a direct or aggressive approach.

2. Enlist allies behind the scenes.

In the early days of the Obama administration, men made up two-thirds of the president’s top aides. Among their ranks were a number of forceful personalities, including then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and economic adviser Lawrence Summers. Female advisers found they were being excluded from key meetings and, when they did attend, being ignored.

Together, they adopted a strategy that they called amplification: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author,” Juliet Eilperin reported in the Washington Post in 2016. Amplification prevented the men in the room from taking credit for the women’s good ideas and encouraged them to recognize the women’s contributions. The women staffers also complained to the president that their voices weren’t being heard.

As a result of their power moves, Obama “began calling more often on women and junior aides,” according to Eilperin. By the president’s second term, women comprised half of his inner circle. “Backstage efforts provide opportunities to gather momentum behind your agenda,” write Kolb and Williams. “As that support grows, it isolates the blockers, making continued opposition harder and harder for them.”

3. Address power dynamics.

If Chief Justice Roberts had difficulty performing his timekeeping responsibility accurately while engaging in oral arguments, it’s hardly surprising. Multitasking leads to shallow thinking, which in turn makes us more susceptible to bias. A logical solution would be for someone else to take charge of timekeeping if Supreme Court arguments continue to be heard remotely, Jacobi and Litman suggest. Doing so would allow Roberts to focus more on the substance of the discussion and likely result in more evenhanded turn taking.

If you notice on your video calls that some people seem reluctant to speak or are being interrupted, look for ways to make the environment more hospitable and equitable. Calling on those who are being marginalized is one obvious fix. To encourage those who are more reticent, Mita Mallick, the head of diversity and inclusion at Unilever, told the New York Times that she has learned to rely on the chat function and nonverbal cues. During a recent 25-person online meeting, she said, “I was giving a thumbs up, I was making a heart with my hands, I was smiling” to show someone “nonverbally that I was excited about what they’re saying.” Online negotiations create unique challenges, but creative negotiators will always find work-arounds.