Imagine yourself in the following situations:
■ A client calls you, skipping the usual pleasantries: “Why haven’t you gotten back to me? I e-mailed you about adding on to our order two days ago.” Suddenly you remember the e-mail that popped up on your cell phone while you were waiting to buy groceries. You made a mental note to respond later, but it completely slipped your mind.
■ While at work, you receive a text message from your contractor about some complications regarding the remodeling he is doing on your house. You text back and forth, but the discussion gets confusing, and you grow aggravated. Finally you write, “Can’t we discuss tonight????” When you get home, you find that your contractor has left early and taken his tools with him.
■ You’re supervising a team that has traveled across the globe to try to resolve a dispute with another company. Late at night, you receive a progress report via e-mail. Your response, written just before going to bed, includes an offhand dismissal of a member of the other company’s negotiating team. The next day you see that someone on your side accidentally copied the person you insulted on the message string.
The prevalence of smartphones is raising new challenges for negotiators, as these anecdotes suggest. On the one hand, the ability to respond quickly to an e-mail or text showcases your availability and allows you to meet tight deadlines. On the other hand, being in touch day and night sets us up for missteps brought on by distraction, heightened emotions, and fatigue.
Much of the negotiation advice we encounter focuses on interactions “at the table.” Yet as our business lives migrate online, physical tables are often absent from talks, writes Creighton University professor Noam Ebner in a chapter on e-mail negotiations in Negotiation Excellence: Success ful Deal Making (World Scientific Publishing, 2nd ed., 2014).
The data tell the story. There may be close to one billion smartphone users online, and about 72% of them use their device for e-mail, according to a Harris Interactive survey. The device most commonly used to view e-mails is now the iPhone, accounting for 23% of e-mails opened worldwide. Meanwhile, the percentage of e-mails opened in Microsoft Outlook, software used primarily on desktop and laptop computers, declined globally from 43% to 18% between 2010 and 2013.
When words fail us
Absent body language, tone of voice, and social cues, negotiators must focus on the content of e-mails as they seek to understand their partners and identify whether agreement is possible. Thus, the words we choose are paramount when we negotiate via e-mail.
When negotiators take the time to express themselves clearly and succinctly, they may be able to communicate more precisely and eloquently online than they could in person. But most people don’t devote enough time to ensuring that their messages are precise, error-free, and well organized. Indeed, negotiators who do business via e-mail tend to reach less creative and less satisfying agreements than do those who meet in person.
Modes of communication differ in their synchronicity, or the extent to which people work together on the same activity at the same time, according to INSEAD professor Roderick Swaab and Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky. Phone calls, videoconferences, and online chats allow negotiators to respond immediately to each other’s proposals and questions.
By contrast, e-mail has been considered an “asynchronous media” because parties are free to delay their responses over the course of days or even weeks. The asynchronous nature of e-mail contributes to the high rate of impasse in e-mail negotiation.
The risks of negotiating via e-mail increase when we are typing responses or questions on the fly. As Ebner puts it, many of us now read and write e-mails “during classes, rock concerts, and movies.” This type of multitasking makes us distracted and unfocused, abundant research has found. As a result, our e-mails may be less coherent and accurate than ever.
Is e-mail on its way out?
You might not know it from the number of messages in your inbox, but e-mail use is declining, particularly among young people, who rely more on texts and social media to communicate.
In fact, rebellion against e-mail has become a trend in the business world. German automaker Volkswagen now blocks its servers from sending e-mail messages to employees after work hours. And in 2011, Thierry Breton, the CEO of IT services company Atos, launched a “zero e-mail initiative” to phase out internal e-mail use across the company. According to Breton, Atos managers were spending 5 to 20 hours per week reading and writing more than 1,000 e-mails each, only about 10% of which were useful.
In addition to encouraging employees to visit one another’s cubicles, Atos and other companies are adopting cloud-based tools that promote knowledge sharing, collaboration, and synchronous communication. Such changes could lead to more fruitful negotiations both inside and outside the organization.
Meanwhile, smartphones may be changing e-mail from an asynchronous format to a “semi- synchronous” one, writes Ebner. With so many people “carrying their in-boxes in their pocket,” he says, our e-mail and text-message exchanges increasingly are leaning toward real-time negotiations. Given the high potential for misunderstandings in electronic exchanges, conflict may escalate swiftly when negotiators are swapping messages in quick succession. At the same time, one can use the asynchronous nature of e-mail strategically, delaying a response to a provocative request by days, for example, or responding quickly to defuse an unreasonable anchor.
E-mail and face time: A balancing act
How can we capitalize on the convenience of occasionally negotiating on the go while minimizing misunderstandings and mistakes? Here are three suggestions:
1. Go into the wind.
To move upwind, sailors tack their boats back and forth, advancing in each direction rather than in a straight line. In the same manner, in a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Negotiation (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), Vanderbilt University professor Ray Friedman and Lehigh University professor Liuba Y. Belkin advise negotiators to go “into the wind”—to switch between close and distant forms of communication, capitalizing on the benefits of both and skirting their weaknesses.
Specifically, launch discussions in person when possible. During one or more face-to-face meetings, you can work toward establishing the rapport and trust that might be sorely lacking if you jumped straight into online discussions.
After an initial meeting, negotiators commonly need to identify the broad questions and issues at stake. Because research has shown that online discussions are conducive to abstract thinking, this may be a good point at which to move online.
If possible, counterparts could then meet in person again to share information about their interests and options, as proximity tends to encourage negotiators to open up and absorb what they hear. Next, negotiators could move back online, if needed, to identify tradeoffs and develop proposals, Friedman and Belkin suggest, and then signal their commitment to whatever agreement arises with another face-to-face meeting.
If meeting in person isn’t possible, then small talk and friendly questions (“How was your vacation?”) throughout the process can go a long way toward building a trusting, cooperative relationship. Phone calls, a happy medium between e-mailing and meeting face-to-face, can also help bridge the distance.
2. Increase e-mail’s richness.
E-mail and texts may be “impoverished” environments devoid of facial expressions (not including emoticons) and other helpful social cues, but there are ways to increase their richness, according to Ebner.
To reduce the errors and gaffes that come from dashing off messages on your smartphone, you could make a habit of turning your phone off at times when you are likely to be distracted. If you must review your e-mail, some programs, such as Gmail, allow you to flag important messages (with a star or other icon) so that they will stand out when you are back at your desk.
It’s particularly important to wait to reply when you feel angry or impatient with a counterpart’s message. A delay gives you time to cool off and craft a diplomatic response. If you think your counterpart is expecting an immediate reply, let her know when you plan to respond. When you do, reread your message before hitting send. Consider attaching graphs, photos, and other relevant information to improve understanding, suggests Ebner.
When you do need to answer a message quickly, add a caveat or e-mail signature informing the reader that you are using a smartphone, then review your message later. In addition, keep in mind that an e-mail lasts forever: Do not type anything that would hurt you or someone else if it were inadvertently or deliberately forwarded to others.
3. Capitalize on benefits.
Certain people and groups may be particularly ripe for e-mail negotiation, according to Friedman and Belkin.
In one series of research studies, groups of 6 to 12 people generated more ideas and felt more satisfied with their progress when negotiating electronically rather than verbally. Electronic media can lessen the odds that one or more individuals will dominate the discussion and gives shy members of a group a chance to shine.
Second, those who have difficulty expressing anger and being assertive in negotiation may find that they are less inhibited when negotiating via e-mail. The sense of anonymity that comes with e-mail can help some negotiators, particularly women, stand up for themselves and achieve better outcomes.
Finally, research suggests that young adults—computer savvy since childhood—behave more cooperatively when doing business online. Younger negotiators may be particularly capable of adapting to the quirks of smartphone exchanges.