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Most trainers and coaches, not only for negotiation, have spent most of the last year online, and the most successful of them have learned to create engaging and interactive content especially using the new media of ZOOM and its competitors (See our blog of May 2020).  But what we are now starting to realize that it is not only negotiation training that has moved online, but negotiation itself.

A few statistics tell the story.  In a recent survey of several thousand business negotiators, 90% said that real-time negotiations are to be preferred.  But 70% of these same respondents also admitted that they are instead (mostly due to Corona) conducting their negotiations online.  And further emerging research shows that 50% of (asynchronous) negotiations end in an impasse, vs. only 19% for real-time.  The shift is very real and probably lasting.  And the results are cause for concern.

To be clear, there are now really three modes of negotiation delivery:

  1. Real-time, the old-fashioned way

  2. Email and Moodle, or asynchronous virtual communication

  3. Skype, Zoom and other competitors for synchronous virtual communication.

Most of the research so far focuses on email, with Zoom coming up strongly from behind.  Some key findings to highlight:

  1. Trust suffers. As we move conversations online, it becomes much more difficult to tend relationships and build trust.  Paraverbal and kinetic information is much reduced.  There is no body language to read, at least from the shoulders down.  We do less small talk. What is more, negotiations are far more planned, with set times and Zoom links.  What used to happen spontaneously at the water cooler or over coffee at the UN does not develop any more, and information is not shared as readily.  The neuroscientists tell us that the bonding hormone oxytocin goes missing.

  1. Even worse, inhibitions for bad behavior diminish, and trolling and ghosting flourish, an atmosphere not conducive to win-win.  It is now fairly clearly documented that especially email exchanges are often marked by increased aggression, even insults and threats. Negativity is amplified.  It is simply easier to escalate conflict when we are not facing the other person.  Active listening, so essential for clarity and empathy, feels silly and unnecessary when done in an email. In short, social disinhibition rules, and we are all the poorer for it.

  1. Lying becomes easier to do and more difficult to detect. We simply use different parts of the brain to communicate by email than we do face to face.   The experts are already offering advice drawn from “language deception theory”:  in emails, watch out for decreased use of the first person, more flowery language, but also more negative words. Without body language and personal chemistry, it is all we have.

  1. It is far easier to walk away.  With no investment in time or travel, when difficulties arise we can simply stop the exchange or close the Zoom call with few repercussions.    And so we do not take the time to look for the win-win in more creative solutions.  Premature breakdown replaces the vaunted increase of the pie.

All that being said, there are certainly also advantages of online negotiation vs.real-time.  Asynchroncity gives us more time to think, getting things in writing impedes backsliding,  and especially Zoom offers some features that can even improve the quality of communication.  More on that and also our twelve takeaways for successful virtual negotiation in our upcoming seminar module.

In any case, this a paradigm shift. The genie is certainly out of the bottle. How now to make it dance?

Comments welcome.


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