Most negotiators agree that if the deal is important enough it should be negotiated in person. However, because of COVID-19 concerns this has changed overnight. For the time being, videoconferencing will have to bridge the divide. Although videoconferencing has been readily available for years—and is common for internal company meetings—videoconferencing has been largely ignored for negotiations. Now, business leaders who embrace and understand videoconferencing negotiations will be rewarded, while those who drag their feet will be left behind leaving a lot of value sitting on the virtual table.
As we consistently preach at Conlego, the most important step to a negotiation is preparation. Understanding your medium is one step in that chain. The purpose of this post is to make you aware of many issues people often ignore when preparing for a videoconference negotiation. By simply being aware of these issues and including them in your negotiation strategy, you will be miles ahead of the person on the other end.
The most important step to a negotiation is preparation.
Although there are several different types of videoconference negotiations that have nuances worth discussing, this focuses on personal videoconferencing which will become the most common form while people work from home. Personal videoconferencing is when there is a 1:1 ratio of cameras to people. You may have just two people in total, or multiple people in the negotiation, but each person is in front of their own individual camera and screen. Understanding the below list is crucial to successful preparation.
Platform. If you are setting up the negotiation, you have no excuse for not understanding how it works. If you are unfamiliar with a platform (GoTo, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Chime, Skype, 8x8, etc.), now is the time to get familiarized. I recommend using your chosen platform several times for internal meetings (where otherwise it would have just been a conference call) to get both the feel of the functions and rhythm of videoconferencing. Your first use should not be the negotiation. As with all tech-dependent meeting, build in both the time and patience to get all other participants onto the platform you choose. If you plan for technical difficulties, you will not be thrown off your game when they arise.
Equipment. Most laptops have built in cameras, but if you have an external camera be aware of its location. Cameras sitting on a desk pointed up will make you appear larger and out of proportion with the screen which can be distracting. Cameras high up facing down will have the opposite effect, but still as distracting. Most importantly, the camera is your point of reference for eye contact (discussed below). Audio is also important. I have yet to meet a laptop that is capable on its own for the microphone and speakers. Typically, a participant using their computer for the audio will not only sound distant and muffled, they are also the likely culprit causing feedback. I prefer using headphones/earbuds with built in mics. However, they are not without their drawbacks. Bulky noise cancelling headphones are too distracting and you cannot be taken seriously when wearing them – do yourself a favor and keep them in the case until your next flight. Earbuds are the least distracting as long as you do not have a habit of fiddling with them (remember, we can see you). If you are someone who gets animated when you talk and gesture a lot, make sure you go cordless with the headphones. If not, the cord will be swinging wildly and it is all the other side will be able to focus on. When it comes to equipment, remember that your counterpart may have better or worse equipment than you. Do not assume they see and hear you in the same way you see and hear them.
Eye Contact. Let’s assume you believe me that eye contact is huge during an in-person negotiation. The same is true for videoconferencing, but it is more difficult to achieve. The only way to appear to make eye contact is by looking directly into your camera. But, by looking into the camera you have to look away from the screen. When you look away from the screen you cannot focus on the other side. To address this, I remain conscious of whether or not I want to look highly engaged (look at the camera), or if I want to gauge someone’s reaction to something I have said (look at the screen). For example, when the other person is talking I try to look into the camera to show I am directly engaged. Casually looking at the screen to see the person once in a while is normal, similar to an in-person interaction, but the majority of time I prefer to look at the camera. This does take some practice because your eyes will naturally be drawn to the movement on the screen. When I am speaking, I prefer to see the reaction of the other participant so I focus more on the screen than the camera. I also move the platform window to the top of my screen, as close to the camera as possible, to minimize the unintentional breaks in eye contact.
The camera is your point of reference for eye contact.
Beware of dual monitors. In my home office my laptop has the camera, but I am typically connected to a larger screen that I work from. When I am on a videoconference I always disconnect the larger screen. This ensures I only look at the laptop. Leaving another monitor active will tempt you to look at it, and when you do, you will look disengaged. Similar to looking out the window if you were in the room with the person, it sends the wrong message.
Frame of View. People will not only see you, they will see whatever is behind you. Family photos can be personalizing, but they can also be distracting. An unmade bed (I’ve seen it) sends a different message than a clean brick wall. Make sure that whatever is in the frame supports the negotiation strategy you are pursuing. Also, be very conscious of your placement within the frame of view. If you use hand gestures, make sure they stay in frame. Hand gestures outside the frame not only look more wild than they are, but they are more likely to be misinterpreted because your counterpart cannot see them. Almost all platforms give you a real time view of yourself during the videoconference so make sure to use that as necessary.
This list could go on an on. Although this is an abbreviated version of considerations, just being aware of some often overlooked details will help set you up for success in your next videoconference negotiation. At Conlego, we develop comprehensive negotiation strategies built around any medium – videoconferencing included. Our comprehensive strategies effectively utilize videoconferencing to our advantage, and we routinely train our clients in the same. For further information on how your strategy is impacted by videoconferencing, look for a post on core skills from Conlego CEO Daniel Duty.