Online Negotiations: Which Formats Should You Use When?

With online negotiations now ubiquitous, negotiators face an array of choices regarding which devices and formats to use. We review recent research and theory to help you set up your online negotiations for success.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

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As a result of the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, more people than ever before began to engage in online negotiations—at the office, at the home office, and on the go. When considering how to negotiate online, people often wonder whether the format (text versus video, for example) or the device (smartphone versus a larger screen) used matters. Here, we take a closer look at these and other aspects of online negotiations.

Smartphone or Laptop?

Rather than typing out your next offer, you might want to switch to a video chat on your laptop, the results of a 2018 study published in the journal Group Decision and Negotiation by researchers Terri R. Kurtzberg, Sanghoon Kang, and Charles E. Naquin suggest.

In one experiment, the researchers paired up 376 undergraduate business students and had them take part in fictitious online negotiations for a used car. All pairs negotiated at a distance, with some negotiating on their computers and others negotiating on their smartphones. In addition, some negotiated via Skype’s video mode, while others simply typed messages in Skype’s text mode.

The researchers assessed participants’ outcomes using a point system. Whether they negotiated via video or text, pairs who used computers achieved better combined outcomes than those using phones, the results showed. Moreover, those who negotiated via video did better than those who conducted text negotiations. And pairs who negotiated via video on a computer achieved the highest outcomes.

Why might larger laptop screens promote better results in online negotiation than smaller smartphone screens? It could be that negotiators are “more engaged and less distracted” when looking at a larger screen, the researchers speculate. Additionally, for text negotiations, the relative ease of typing on a computer keyboard as compared to a smartphone screen might encourage longer, more creative messages. Whatever the reason, the findings indicate there may be value to putting down your phone and powering up your computer when negotiating at a distance.

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Switching Channels in Online Negotiations

These days, when it comes to online negotiations, we are less likely to ask ourselves which communication channel (video, text, etc.) we should use than we are to ask which communication channel we should use when. No longer do we limit ourselves to negotiating exclusively via one online channel. In fact, in a 2020 interview with Negotiation Briefings, Creighton University professor Noam Ebner, an expert in online negotiations, said that during the pandemic, he used “three or four channels just to communicate with the people in my house.”

Practicalities often affect our choice of communication channel, says Ebner. We might ask, “Would this task be best served by a synchronous (live, real-time) or asynchronous (happening at different times) discussion?” The hours that people are available may determine whether it’s feasible to meet via video or chat in real time.

“The pace of events is also a factor,” Ebner says. “A two-year negotiation might be fine unfolding largely on email. A hostage negotiation will need real-time communication, such as voice or video, or near-synchronous texting.”

He also points out that different media are favored in different places: WhatsApp, for example, is used widely across the globe but not as much in the United States.

Your own unique traits and preferences might also be factors to consider. Ebner advises us to think about how we might bring our “best self” to the negotiation. “Research has shown that face-to-face interaction and, likely, video work better for ‘storytellers’—people who express themselves emotionally, through stories and anecdotes,” he says. “Text-based communication, such as email, may be more comfortable for so-called engineers—people who communicate more through data and logic.”

In addition, because cues of status, such as a fancy office, are absent from text-based communications, emails and texting can be a smart choice in online negotiations when you are interacting with those who have considerably more power or status than you. Communicating via such formats may serve to level the playing field between negotiators of different rank. Text negotiations can also be beneficial when you’re feeling nervous and need time to craft what you want to say.

Drawbacks of Online Negotiations

Even video negotiations have their limits, however. As Ebner writes in a chapter in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, online negotiations conducted via video provide us with only a partial view of our counterpart(s)—their head and shoulders, typically—and little sense of their environment.

He also notes that privacy is a special concern in video negotiations. Online negotiations could be recorded without your knowledge, or others could be listening in and even advising your counterpart without your knowledge.

Thus, when you don’t know your counterpart well and security is a concern, you may want to make an extra effort to negotiate in person. If that isn’t feasible, be sure to make time at the start of a video negotiation to engage in small talk, which could help you build trust in negotiations.

What have you learned from your experiences with online negotiations in recent years?

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