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‘Saving Face’ in Online Negotiations
While the value of face-to-face interaction to business relationships has never been open to dispute, it has become apparent in recent times that face-to-face interaction isn’t always possible. Even those who actively resist the idea that entire industries can be sustained on a solely virtual basis cannot ignore the structural shift that has occurred collectively since the outbreak of Covid-19.
With The New York Times noting that despite the pandemic, Apple are reporting first-quarter sales being up (Nicas, 2020), it is clear that technology has become a lifeline for many during these times. While keeping up to date with the latest technology is not a new concept, more business owners than ever are realizing how essential it is for their workforce to be able to work from anywhere, without any issues. But what about the negotiators who insist on conducting business face-to-face because that’s where their strengths lie? Could the possibility of online negotiations becoming the new “normal” mark an end to their success?
The ability to establish the true measure of a discussion.
For centuries, negotiators have utilized human behaviours such as body language and cultural nuances to aid their negotiation process, silently measuring the reaction of the other party and changing tact accordingly. For the type of negotiator who regards perceptiveness as one of their strongest skills, face-to-face interaction tends to paint a much fuller picture than online negotiations. Sociologists have been noting for decades how the consideration of social norms by individuals impacts relationships, and this is something that any good negotiator is acutely aware of.
The works of highly regarded sociologists such as Erving Goffman are so embedded in today’s society that most negotiators don’t even need to study human behaviour to effectively navigate it. Understanding concepts such as Goffman’s differentiation between the impression we as humans “give” (usually through verbal statements) and the impression we “give off” (through non-verbal cues) is often an instinctive skill for good communicators. For negotiators with a penchant for face-to-face interaction, it is this ability to establish the true measure of a discussion that they fear losing through virtual communication.
Additional obstacles to manoeuvre
As well as the perception that a lack of physical presence can create blind spots for negotiators, factors such as time zones, Internet speed, hardware and software have all become additional obstacles for the traditional face-to-face negotiator to manoeuvre. While it’s unlikely that a deal will collapse purely because of a webcam issue or because a time zone has been overlooked – for a negotiator who focuses on presenting a flawless image of themselves and their company, that first impression remains of utmost importance.
With so many deals being dependent on creating a sense of reliability, a savvy negotiator will recognize the risk of small errors being interpreted as disorganization, or even carelessness. While for some, testing technological tools and anticipating external interferences might seem like an unnecessary step in the preparation process, for those who value traditional forms of communication this step acts as a risk minimization exercise.
Drawing parallels and using them
In addition to how you present yourself and your deal, effective communication in negotiations will always rely heavily on your consideration for the person you’re communicating with, what their viewpoint looks like and if it is possible to change their frame of reference to fit with your agenda. Coming from a background in communications, it is perhaps easier for me to repeatedly look to the likes of Goffman and his portrayal of human interaction to draw parallels between virtual communication and face-to-face interaction – reminding myself that fundamentally, little has changed. According to Goffman, face-to-face interaction is a kind of “performance” in which individuals take on a persona that they believe can help them achieve a desired impression.
With mission statements available online, and platforms such as LinkedIn, it’s easier than ever for business representatives to see what’s important to their clients and to even connect with them on a less formal basis than has ever been possible before. In the online era, that connection request on a platform such as LinkedIn has the potential to mark the beginning of the rapport-building process that traditional face-to-face negotiators value so much. Even for the negotiators who insist on having face-to-face interaction for pivotal parts of the negotiation process, using their instinct to help shape exclusively online interaction is something that is still very possible.
Finding new ways to listen
In my view, the digital age has not rendered traditional communication strategies useless. If anything, it has just provided negotiators who were previously lacking in their communication skills with the misguided belief that they can mask it better. Whether conversations take place face-to-face, via video link or even entirely through email, the ability to listen is ever-present and a negotiator with a proven track record for success face-to-face is likely to still be able to read between the lines of the information they’re given.
While details such as tone or intent might be more difficult to analyze virtually, communication methods are now broad enough to allow feedback to be measured in numerous ways and a strategic communicator will be able to work with this. The negotiator who lacks communication skills in general will still struggle to hide this fact, even virtually – making the distinction between a “good” and “bad” negotiator still prevalent in the digital age.
Virtual doesn’t have to mean less skilful.
During an exercise conducted during the ‘presentation and negotiation’ module for students at Turku UAS, it was noted by some MBA (Sales Management) students how unexpectedly intense online negotiations can be. With online negotiations, there is sometimes an assumption that you don’t need to be as “present” as you would be during face-to-face negotiations, but the truth is that virtual negotiations require just as much, if not more, focus and input during interactions. Students observed how online negotiations require you to be “switched on” at all times – something that they previously felt applied more to face-to-face negotiations.
For the students who were surprised by how wrong their assumptions about virtual negotiations were, this exercise made the mastery of good communication skills appear even more vital. For some, the thrill of a negotiation is what elevates their performance and for negotiators who fear that this aspect becomes lost during online negotiations, the students who completed this exercise would state that this is not the case.
An expectation now exists for virtual interaction to remain an option.
Moving forward, negotiators who were previously averse to the idea that equal progress can be made with a client virtually as it can face-to-face can still hold this opinion, but they must also understand that the choice may not always be in their hands. While the pandemic might not cause face-to-face negotiations to disappear entirely, virtual interaction has become commonplace in a relatively short space of time. As a result, it’s likely that the option of having virtual meetings will become a permanent expectation for most businesses.
In putting some time into updating your online presence or purchasing a more reliable webcam, you’re not conceding to the pressures of the digital world – you’re just giving yourself the best possible chance to utilize your face-to-face skills when the option of face-to-face is not present.
Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.
Nicas, J. (2020). ‘Apple’s First-Quarter Sales Are Up Despite Coronavirus Slowdown’, The New York Times. [online]. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/technology/apple-sales-earnings-coronavirus.html> [Accessed 31 May 2020].