Do you negotiate via text message? If you’re a young person early in your career, there’s a good chance you could easily pull up message strings full of discussions about issues and offers. If you’re a little older, you might have answered no. Even so, if you took a closer look at the saved text messages on your smartphone, you might find you’ve recently negotiated the division of chores with a family member, texted with a stranger about the sale of a used car or other item, or messaged a colleague about swapping shifts or responsibilities.
Whether or not we like it, texting is an increasingly common tool in business communications and negotiation. In a chapter in the book The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, Vol. 2 (DRI Press, 2017), Creighton University professor Noam Ebner encourages the skeptical to view texting not as a sign of society’s decreased formality and civility but as one more tool we can use to improve the efficiency and outcomes of our negotiations.
The hidden richness when you negotiate via text
A relatively young communication mode, texting originated in the instant- messaging programs and chat rooms of the mid-1990s, eventually migrating from computers to mobile phones in the early 2000s. These days, in addition to tapping out SMS (short message service) messages on our smartphones, many of us also send private messages on Facebook, Twitter, and other apps. In areas of the world where cellular service is spotty or unavailable, Internet-based messaging apps such as WhatsApp are replacing SMS as the main form of text communication, writes Ebner.
The ability of texting to connect people in far-flung locations at any moment of the day has made it ubiquitous in personal and, increasingly, business communications, despite some notable drawbacks. Like e-mails, texts lack the rich visual and vocal cues that other communication modes, such as in-person meetings and phone calls, can provide. When we don’t have body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and other cues to rely on to help us “read” others, we can have trouble building rapport. In addition, misunderstandings, frustration, and conflict can become more likely.
Texts also lack some features of e-mails that enhance communication, including bolding, underlining, and bullet points, although we can use emojis, GIFs, and photo attachments to enhance our texts. Speaking of emojis, texts tend to be a highly informal means of communicating. The hassle of typing on a small screen and potential for errors encourage succinct messages that lack the conventions of other written correspondence, including salutations and sign-offs. As a result, texts seem abrupt and impolite to some.
The ability of texting to connect people in far-flung locations at any moment of the day has made it ubiquitous in personal and, increasingly, business communications, despite some notable drawbacks.
Given those features, texting might seem like an unpromising means of negotiating. Yet texting has some notable advantages for negotiators. It offers the ability to reach out instantaneously across the miles regarding logistics, ideas, or offers at times when a phone call might be impossible or disruptive. People who are shy or conflict averse may find they can assert themselves better in texts than in person. And young people, who tend to text frequently, report feeling more comfortable expressing their emotions through texts as compared to other media, research by Jennifer Crosswhite of the National Council on Family Relations and her colleagues shows.
Another advantage of texting, as compared to many other media, is that it allows for both fast and slow communication. We can carry out a text conversation synchronously, like a phone conversation, or take time to think between messages. Ebner cites research showing that negotiators who are “fast talkers”—those who have well- planned arguments ready to deploy and who think on their feet—are skilled at eliciting concessions from their counterparts via text. By comparison, those who like to take time to plot strategy can delay their responses and slow down the pace.
How to negotiate via text
For most business negotiations, it’s usually wise to begin with one or more face-to-face meetings. If connecting in person isn’t possible, start with phone calls or videoconferences before adding texts and e-mails to the mix. Visual and vocal cues will enhance rapport and understanding right from the start. If and when you feel like texting, the following three guidelines from Ebner will help you do so effectively:
- 1. Proofread your messages. One advantage of texting—the ability to dash off messages on the run— results in one of its frequent pitfalls: misspellings and embarrassing autocorrect errors. Ebner, for instance, describes the time his smartphone’s autocorrect feature replaced the negotiation term BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) with BANTHA, the woolly mammoth–type creature from the Star Wars films. “My suggestion that we share these with each other received the electronic equivalent of a raised eyebrow,” he writes. Before hitting “send,” make it a policy to review every message for mistakes and to check that it’s going to the right person.
- 2. Don’t take offense. It’s common for older adults (and by “older,” we mean over 30!) to be annoyed by the casual liberties that younger people use when texting. Text abbreviations (LOL, SMH, BRB, etc.), emojis, incomplete sentences, and slang can leave us wondering what the business world is coming to. Ebner’s advice? “Get over it.” He says, “Our assumptions about what is appropriate and what is not are rooted in our own culture and experience.” Not so long ago, after all, many people felt uncomfortable doing business via e-mail. If you’re uncomfortable with certain conventions of texting, address the issue directly or ask to switch to e-mail or phone. Above all, “do not infer disrespect, inappropriateness, unprofessional behavior, or uncouth behavior” from a counterpart’s informal texts, Ebner recommends.
- 3. Give them the benefit of the doubt. A similar guideline applies to long delays between text messages and messages that seem curt. Rather than taking offense, consider that your counterpart may be typing under the table at a meeting or unable to text at all, recommends Ebner. Just because people have their phones on them most of the time doesn’t mean they’re free to engage with you. We all tend to overthink people’s intentions, especially in tense situations, such as an exchange of offers. You might avoid the suspicion and negativity that can be triggered by aspects of texting by agreeing with your counterpart that you’ll let each other know when you need some time to respond at length.
Do you negotiate via text? Has it ever gone awry? Please share your experience in the comments below.