Negotiating from a Distance

Clammy handshakes, a scratched mahogany table with papers strewn about, laptops fighting for space with half empty cups of coffee, and that awful fluorescent lighting above – sounds pretty great right about now, doesn’t it?

In this unprecedented time of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, negotiations are still happening every day (and they must, for our economy to recover) – they just look different. Critical tools in the negotiator’s toolbox involving nonverbal cues, such as body language and emotional expression, take a back seat during negotiations that take place by phone, videoconference, or even [shudder] email. Research has shown that in-person negotiations yield better results than negotiations that happen via screen, but don’t get discouraged – just reframe your thinking.[1] Here are some tips to make the most of your virtual negotiations until we’re back in the conference room.

  1. Go back to basics. You still can’t skimp on the preparation, folks. You still need to do your homework. Gathering as much information as possible is key to identify and make sense of the issues in your negotiation. Spending the time on preparation will open more doors for you to create value.
  • Be an active listener. While leaning in or using other body language may be off the table, you can still show your interest in your adversary’s point of view by paraphrasing their phrases back to them and peppering the conversation with simple phrases such as “yes,” “I see,” and “I understand.” Actively listening encourages your opponent to continue talking – and the more that happens, the more control you have over the negotiation.
  • Build affiliation. You may be separated by screens, but if there were ever a time to bond with someone you may otherwise have nothing in common with, it’s now. In normal circumstances, I find mindless banter about the weather and traffic to be a waste of time you could instead be building a connection that can help you negotiate. But now… the rules have changed. People are hurting, anxious, and overwhelmed. Ask your adversary how he or she is holding up, and take the opportunity to share what’s going on in your world. Don’t cut right to the chase. By creating rapport, you create value.
  • Mix it up. Modern technology enables us to be connected 24/7/365, and the COVID-19 crisis has proven it. While you may not be meeting face to face, you still have a wealth of options to get in touch. If you’re negotiating with someone you don’t know well or if the negotiation has just begun, consider a videoconference as the next closest thing to an in-person meeting. As the negotiation progresses, the timing may be right to negotiate by phone. I really believe that email, which is about as impersonal as things can get, is a last resort when negotiating – but it’s still an appropriate choice, of course, to settle simple issues and share documents.

To lift ourselves out of the economic fallout of COVID-19, continuing to make deals and negotiate is critical. In that way, the negotiations that take place during this period are among the most important of our lives. Keep focused and keep moving forward so we can get back to those fluorescent lights and clammy handshakes as soon as possible.

[1] Read more on Harvard Program on Negotiation Blog.