Negotiating the Distance Between You

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “How to Negotiate When You’re (Literally) Far Apart,” by Roderick I. Swaab (professor, INSEAD) and Adam D. Galinsky (professor, Northwestern University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, February 2007.

Growing economic globalization offers a multitude of new opportunities yet often necessitates alternatives to face-to-face meetings, such as phone calls, e-mails, videoconferences, or instant messages. Newly available technologies can be powerful negotiating tools that save time and money, but if not managed properly, they also come with some predictable pitfalls, such as misunderstandings and mutual distrust. What’s more, your choice of communication medium is likely to affect the quality of the relationship, the amount of information shared, and the efficiency of the negotiated agreement.

Different communication media vary in terms of richness, or their potential to convey the sensation of social presence, which can be so important in negotiation. A phone conversation may allow you to feel psychologically close to a foreign partner despite the fact that the two of you are speaking across the globe. Videoconferencing, which adds visual cues to an exchange, may contribute even more of a social presence. The impersonal nature of an e-mail exchange, on the other hand, may leave parties feeling distant.

A second dimension underlying media is their level of synchronicity, or the extent to which individuals work together on the same activity at the same time. Phone calls, videoconferences, and computerized chats allow negotiators to respond immediately to each other’s actions and words, whereas asynchronous media such as e-mail, voicemail, and fax messages delay the communication process, with potentially disastrous consequences. According to insiders, the extensive use of asynchronous media (voicemail and e-mail) by Federal Emergency Management Agency employees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was partially responsible for the significant delays in emergency assistance – and the desperation and death that followed.

Media richness and synchronicity have a strong impact on negotiation. In a research review, Roderick I. Swaab of INSEAD and Victoria Medvec and Daniel Diermeier of Northwestern University discovered that vocal cues, visual cues, and synchronicity all promote more efficient outcomes by facilitating information sharing and the use of complex strategies, such as making multiple equivalent simultaneous offers. Negotiators leave less money on the table when they are able to pick up clear social cues.

Furthermore, Swaab and colleagues found that vocal cues most effectively improve relations between negotiators and thus reduce the likelihood of impasse. By contrast, the visual cues available in videoconferencing and the synchronicity of instant messaging did not contribute to the development of positive relationships.

Clearly, when preparing to negotiate, you should choose a medium that suits your purposes; above all, strive to enhance the negotiation with appropriate communication cues.

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