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5 practical ways to ace a virtual negotiation

Research shows that those who negotiate online are less likely to reach deals. The good news is that there are practical steps to take to improve your odds.

5 practical ways to ace a virtual negotiation
[Photo: Renith R/Unsplash]

You planned the big negotiation for months.

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You reserved the conference room, organized the seating strategically, ordered the sushi, and got your good-luck power suit dry-cleaned.

Then coronavirus hit and changed everything. Your high-stakes, long-awaited in-person negotiation was suddenly shifted to a virtual negotiation. Now you feel out of your element, to say the least, and unsure of how to proceed.

If you’re like most of the managers and executives that I work with at companies big and small, you have a very strong preference for face-to-face negotiation over the screen-to-screen variety.

Why is that?

It’s in part because any negotiation contains two motivations: a cooperative element (“We’re all here because we perceive some synergies”) and a more obvious competitive element (“Each of us is trying to get the best possible deal for ourselves”). Those mixed motivations can result in tension.

But “e-negotiations” escalate that tension even further because parties feel they won’t be able to “read the person” as well as in an in-person interaction and make immediate, in-the-moment adjustments—all in hopes of sealing the perfect deal and avoiding being taken to the proverbial cleaners.

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It turns out this is a valid concern. Research shows that, compared to people who negotiate face-to-face, those who negotiate online are:

  • less likely to reach deals and more likely to end up at a (costly) impasse
  • less likely to develop trust and more likely to lose trust during the interchange
  • less likely to build rapport

And, when they do reach deals, the deals are more likely to be less win-win, meaning more opportunity left on the table.

The good news is that you can take practical steps to reduce the odds of those suboptimal outcomes. Follow these five tips to make the most of your virtual business negotiation.

Discuss the process of negotiating before getting down to business

One big truth about virtual teamwork and negotiation is that people are more task-focused and get right down to business in this context. This may be a good idea if you are planning a party (cooperative task), but it may ruffle feathers when you are seated at the negotiation table (mixed-motive task). I’ve seen a lot of negotiations break down before they even start because parties are offended at how they are being treated by the other party. So, discuss how best to commence negotiations (i.e. jump into the issues versus discuss broad strokes; whether to use visuals or simply exchange ideas, etc.) before you begin the negotiation in earnest.

Don’t rush your opening offer

Too often, I’ve seen online negotiators attempt to blindside the other party by smacking down an opening too early. Yes, it’s absolutely true that there is a “first-mover” advantage in negotiation (she who makes the first offer usually prevails), but this should not translate into shoving a term sheet into the virtual hands of the receiving party before you even say hello. Instead, I suggest you plan your opening offer carefully but resist presenting it until two things have happened: first and foremost, you have greeted the other party and hopefully even schmoozed a little; second, you’ve discussed with the counterparty how best to use their time. Indeed, research indicates that “late” first offers, those that are presented after appropriate pleasantries are exchanged and the proverbial table is set, are more effective than early first offers. So by all means craft your opening offer beforehand, but wait for the right time to reveal it.

Look in the mirror

One study found that people who communicated virtually and were able to see their own expressions in a mirror behaved more collaboratively than those without the mirror. Remember that negotiation is inherently a competitive enterprise, and that can bring out the “Mr. or Ms. Hyde” in each of us. So, have a way of checking your own expression and body language, where possible. In a virtual negotiation, this can be very easy, as you’ll likely see your own image on the screen, along with the counterparty. Pay attention to it.

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Know when to go offline

Constant conversation may not work in your favor at the negotiation table. In a face-to-face negotiation, people can casually come and go, such as stepping out for a coffee break or private caucus. In contrast, people on a conference call or text thread often feel that they can’t break away. So figure out how to take a break and resume negotiations. It may be as easy as, “What do you say about taking a short break and resuming in 10 minutes?”

Our research has revealed that breaks are absolutely essential in at least two situations. The first is when you feel that you are in the power-down position. For example, we compared email versus text-chat negotiations, reasoning that email allows for more natural breaks whereas text-chats rope us in. Sure enough, we found that when negotiators had a disadvantageous position, they were much better off in email versus text-chat conversations. Second are situations when negotiations are getting very contentious and people are likely to say things they may regret. This is when an email or a well-timed break—or even reaching for the mute button—may offer a lifesaving firewall.

Don’t gloat

I recently witnessed a negotiation break down when one party suddenly backed out of the deal because they thought the other party seemed “too happy!” In our research on emotion and negotiation, my colleagues and I found that when people expressed happiness or delight immediately following a negotiation, this made the counterparty believe that the deal was not in their favor, and led to less-than-generous post-negotiation behaviors. For example, in our study, the gloating negotiator in a hiring situation wherein the recruiter could offer valuable stock options to a candidate received fewer stock options than the non-gloater. It’s far better to express appreciation for the other party’s effort and constructive behaviors than self-satisfaction.

Virtual negotiation is here to stay, so approach it with an awareness of the challenges it represents, and keep the tips here firmly in mind.


Leigh Thompson is a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and the author the forthcoming book Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table.

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