Negotiation via electronic media has become commonplace. During the Coronavirus epoch, with quarantines (imposed or otherwise) and isolation periods,  there will be a lot more dialogue via e-mail, phone and on-line conferencing.  The discussion that follows is about electronic text negotiation (e.g. email & SMS), which for convenience sake is referred to as e-negotiation. 

When e-negotiating, are there pitfalls we should avoid, or processes to follow?

E-negotiation (sometimes referred to as virtual negotiation) covers a range of electronic technologies. When compared to face-to-face conversations there can be three primary differences: 

  • Lack of visual information; 
    • Lack of sound; and
    • Lack of synchronicity.  

These three differences can have high impacts on the process and outcomes of a negotiation.[1]

How we communicate (the medium we use) when we negotiate impacts both on what and how information is conveyed, and how it is received and interpreted. For example, written language is interpreted according to how it is read rather than according to the intent of the writer.

We can identify two dimensions of communication media: (a) Media richness; and (b) Interactivity.

Media richness

This relates to the ability of media to supply contextual cues – e.g. body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. Face-to-face is a ‘rich medium’. Email and SMS text is a ‘lean medium’. 

When negotiating face to face, visual, audio, and verbal cues provide immediate feedback. On the other hand, when negotiating by email and SMS there are limitations. 

On the transmission side of e-negotiation communication, text alone can lead negotiators to focus more on logical argument, rather than emotional or personal appeals. On the receiving side, E-mail and SMS lack important ‘back channel’  and clarifying information, such as acknowledgement (uh-huh) and reactive body language. 

Interactivity  

This relates to the ability of media to sustain a seamless flow of information between two or more negotiators: 

  • Face-to-face communication occurs in the moment and is sequential – parties are together and each person’s statement follows the other. With E-mail and SMS, however, there can be time lapses between when a message is sent, read and responded to – including that the messages can be read out of order. 
    • A second dimension of interactivity is parallel processing – i.e. the ability of two negotiators to simultaneously transmit messages. With email this can lead to ‘cross messaging’.  

The lack of presence and visual cues in E-negotiation tends to lead to messages that are factual, logical and with email possible inclusion of multiple arguments. Coupled with cross-messaging and parallel processing, this can lead to suspicion or perception bias (even though it may not have been intended) and thereby a loss of trust in negotiations. Additionally, E-negotiators tend to ask fewer clarifying questions than face-to-face negotiators – thus leaving more room for assumptions and imputed negative intentions, and thereby reduced trust.

In any negotiation, where negative intent is imputed to the other party and reduced trust follows, competitive, value-claiming behaviour generally follows. 

Despite the above possible negative sides of e-negotiation, there are also possible upsides. For example, where there are multiple stakeholders in a face-to-face meeting there can be a tendency for one or two personalities to dominate the dialogue and not all parties being heard. E-negotiation can change this with all parties participating in the exchange of information and thereby leading to mutual gain (win/win) outcomes.

The above discussion is a snap-shot of the myriad of issues surrounding e-negotiation; and to canvas them all would take more that the space available in this short commentary. 

Is there a quick take-away bit of advice we can offer? In one sense, perhaps there is. Most work/life situations allow us to not only communicate by email and SMS but also by telephone conversation. If that is possible, is there a face-to-face and e-communication chronological sequence that benefits negotiation – e.g. is it better to meet/talk in-person and then communicate electronically, or vice versa? Based on experience, our suggestion is to speak first and then to communicate by email or SMS. And in the event that there is uncertainty arising from e-email or written text, pick up the phone, arrange a tele-conference or meet up. 

The above discussion is about ‘text’ and negotiation. Of course, many other electronic media are available to assist the process – e.g. Zoom, Skye and others. Those processes too have benefits and disadvantages.

If you would like advice or training in this area, please contact us – email, SMS or phone is OK!


[1] Ebner, N., ‘Negotiation via Email’, (2011). In Benoliel (Ed), Negotiation Excellence: Successful Deal Making, WSP Singapore, 397-415.