Imagine that two people are introduced to each other via email by a mutual friend. They begin discussions on the phone regarding a potential business partnership, which lead to several in-person meetings during which their laptops are open and their smartphones are on the table, available for checking facts and tracking down data. In between the meetings, the two negotiators email and text ideas to each other at all hours of the day and night. When logistics make it difficult to meet in person, they have a videoconference and, later, a teleconference to introduce various members of their teams. They finalize their agreement with an in-person meeting and, in the end, sign a contract that one party’s lawyer photographs and texts to the other’s on her phone.
As this hypothetical but typical scenario shows, technology has infiltrated almost every element of our negotiations, as it has almost every aspect of our lives. Negotiation scholars have studied how negotiating via technological media affects the way we negotiate—concluding, for example, that doing business via email can increase misunderstandings and heighten conflict as compared to face-to-face meetings. But the ubiquity of technology in society inevitably affects not only how we negotiate but also who we are, even when we are negotiating in person, writes Creighton University School of Law professor Noam Ebner in a new article in the Missouri Journal of Dispute Resolution.
Our use of technology is altering the pathways in our brains in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. And research from outside the field of negotiation is identifying changes in behaviors, psychology, and emotions that are highly relevant to negotiation. According to Ebner, our use of technology is affecting our focus, empathy, and trust in ways that could require negotiation scholars to reconsider even bedrock beliefs about the field.
Changes in attention and empathy
In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2011), journalist Nicholas Carr draws on neuroscientific research to argue that the way we use technology is impairing our ability to focus, learn, and think deeply. More than ever, we “multitask,” even as science shows that the human brain is incapable of focusing on more than one input at a time. Rather than reading text from start to finish, we scan it for key words and highlights, gathering just enough information to back up our arguments at a meeting or to tell an amusing anecdote at a dinner party.
The very presence of technology can lessen our attention and empathy, Virginia Tech professor Shalini Misra and her colleagues found in a study called “The iPhone Effect.” The researchers paired up 200 people, some of whom were already friends, and randomly assigned them to discuss either a casual or a meaningful topic for 10 minutes in a coffee shop. Research assistants monitored whether participants held their smartphones or put them on the table, or kept them out of sight.
Analyzing the conversations, the researchers found that when a cell phone was in view, the quality of interactions suffered. Specifically, people who spoke to each other with a cell phone present reported less empathetic concern for one another and found the conversation less fulfilling, whether their topic was deep or shallow. The negative impact of a cell phone was even stronger on people who already knew each other. The researchers concluded that the mere presence of a smartphone can distract us from one another and make us miss subtle but important communication cues, such as facial expressions, eye contact, and changes in tone.
Changes in trust
The results of Misra’s study and other research suggest that technology may be reducing our attention and consequently our ability to empathize with others in negotiation and other realms. It may also be altering the degree to which we trust others, writes Ebner.
Trust, an essential element in successful negotiation, enables cooperation, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Yet “trust is literally under attack, in some spheres,” writes Ebner—think of the “fake news” that proliferated during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and President Donald Trump’s frequent dismissal of the news media’s accuracy. A 2016 Gallup survey indicated that trust in traditional institutions is at an all-time low.
Meanwhile, what Ebner refers to as “peer trust”—our willingness to get into a stranger’s car (Lyft) or even bunk in his spare bedroom (Airbnb)—is thriving. At the same time that we greet traditional sources of information with increasing skepticism, we may find ourselves blindly trusting unfamiliar negotiation counterparts.
A negotiation challenge
It would be impossible to put the digital genie back into the bottle, even if we wanted to. As the Internet seems to make us more shallow and distracted, it continues to create unprecedented new ways of collaborating and connecting with one another, from watching Snapchat videos to hailing rides from Lyft to donating to GoFundMe campaigns.
At the same time, it’s important to stay vigilant to the potentially deleterious effects of our near-constant technology use on our focus, fellow feeling, and trust. So in your next negotiation, try this little challenge. Hand out pads of paper and pencils. Encourage everyone to silence and put away their phones and pack up their laptops; remind them that you can look up data later. Then see what happens when you talk, think, and write for the duration of the meeting using nothing but your brains.