Negotiating at a Distance

In every negotiation, information is power. Information is leverage. Information allows us to create better, value-creating deals by helping us understand the underlying needs and interests of each side. This become much more difficult in an environment where we can’t negotiate face to face, but must rely on the imperfect tools of phone, email or videoconferencing.

Why are these tools imperfect? Because some of the most important information we need in negotiation is more than just words. We gain a ton of valuable information from the other’s tone, body language, and emotional state. We gain information by watching how the other reacts to our questions, proposals and disclosure of our own needs and interests. This information is very hard to get and interpret without in-person contact.

Studies also show people are less interested in another’s words when they are not talking face to face in person. This surely reduces information sharing and an understanding of the key elements that will be necessary to build a successful outcome. Moreover, studies suggest the more distant parties are, the more they focus on their own needs and self-interest, instead of collaborating to find solutions that work for both.

We have often experienced that parties move towards more aggressive and combative behaviors when they have the distance between them offered by phone, email, or videoconferencing. These tools act like a shield and give permission to engage in an antagonistic way. In most every instance, we want to limit these types of behaviors and work towards more constructive ones.


What to do:


  • Use email only to confirm details that have been voiced out-loud. It is a terrible tool for negotiating as the meaning of what’s written is too often misconstrued and it’s impossible to ask immediate clarifying questions, judge tone, intent and emotion. People are also less careful about their use of words in email which leads to misunderstanding and emotional responses. It can be a great tool for summarizing what’s been said to ensure both parties have heard the same thing.


  • If using the phone to negotiate, ensure you prepare and set up the call in the same way you would for an in-person meeting. Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted or disturbed. Use your best listening skills to understand what is truly being said, what is not being said, and what the tone of the other’s voice tells you. Ask many questions to clarify what you are hearing so you understand their needs and interests. Use a positive, cooperative voice that will signal your interest in developing a great working relationship and a value-creating solution.


  • The best alternative may be Videoconferencing. It at least gives the negotiators some sense of each other and is most like an in-person dialogue. Of course, it only works if you use the video feature. Too many are turning that off. Building on the advice for phone negotiations, use the video function to really study the facial reactions and body language of the other. If it’s hard to see them, ask them to adjust their camera. Offer to do the same for them. Also, use accompanying materials that help bring clarity of information, such as a PowerPoint that lays out your vision, goals and priority needs in the negotiation. Like in an in-person negotiation, telling your story orally, visually and on paper at the same time can be powerful, as different people receive and interpret information differently. (See also Alex Kopplin’s blog on using videoconferencing in negotiation).

While the current environment is not ideal for negotiating, we can take steps to ensure we get and give important information in a way that helps us achieve an optimal deal. Using email, phone or videoconferencing are useful tools, but only if used in the right way. It will take extra effort, and you will need to bring all of your focus and attention to the negotiation, like never before.

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