The Coronavirus pandemic has emphasised teleconferencing’s central role in negotiations across all sectors. While they have recently become essential, virtual negotiations have long been utilised. However, virtual negotiations have never been as widely used or indeed accessible as they are today. As digital skills have been enhanced across the developed world, there are still many challenges to conducting successful negotiations using virtual platforms and tools. A particular knowledge gap is emerging in the area of digital protocol, and skilled communication in digital settings. This can range from minor faux pas to more consequential blunders in important virtual organisation contexts.
However, more importantly, subtle and less overt mistakes can fundamentally undermine a successful negotiation. There are basic differences between in-person and virtual interaction. Understanding which is important beyond the obvious physical deviations, is central to effectively adapting to the virtual context. Effectively harnessing skilled interpersonal communication is key to successful virtual negotiations and professional interactions.
Fusing skilled interpersonal communication skills with digital knowhow is essential to achieving such outcomes. This requires several key steps. Adopting a step-by-step approach is useful to cognitively preparing for professional interaction in the virtual context.
1. Develop Strategy
Planning is essential to achieving a successful negotiated outcome. Fundamental to this planning, is establishing your position in a negotiation. At a basic level, this is your bottom line, understanding what such a minimum satisfactory outcome would look like. Identifying relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as areas of authority and threat will prepare to protect a negotiator’s interest. This strategic analysis enables a negotiator to then frame arguments and produce evidence to support their position. This is key to protecting and advancing a negotiator’s interest.
With the establishment of negotiator positions, comes the ability to then assess potential areas of conflict within the planned negotiation. Identifying these conflicts in the planning stage strengthens the negotiator’s position, as during the course of the opposing side, you cannot leverage surprise. Moreover, it also helps to ensure negotiation is fluid, increasing the chances of achieving a negotiated settlement.
Equally, it is also key at this stage to identify areas of potential agreement. This will ultimately save time, promote a mood of compromise and establish respect within the negotiation. This in turn supports a successful outcome for a negotiator, by leveraging the result of patience and goodwill. This fundamentally alters the opposing negotiator’s perception of their opponents and the chances of a successful interaction.
2. Neutralising Digital Threats
It is essential not only to ensure that you have cognitively prepared for the negotiation, but it is also important to consider digital threats to a successful interaction. The vast majority of digital blunders in telecommunications are avoidable. Ensuring your microphone is on, even when you are not directly involved in the interaction is an elementary yet incredibly useful step to avoiding any ‘you’re on mute’ moments. Such interruptions can damage the flow of the negotiation. Further, if there are immovable environmental barriers to constantly having your microphone, follow the flow of the conversation and ensure you are turned on before you even gesture to interject. It is also useful to consider removing impediments to visual clarity in digital interaction.
Ensuring that the room you are in is suitably bright, the background you have is professional, weather superimposed or a real physical feature and the temperature of the room is cool to avoid facial redness and perspiration is fundamental. Moreover, avoiding technology-related video distortions such as freezing and blurring is key to facilitating a successful interaction. This can be achieved by using WIFI strength level gauges that are available on most video conferencing tools including Zoom. It is vital to do this well in advance of the scheduled negotiation to eliminate any connectivity issues.
Audio issues are a particular impairment for a digital negotiation as they undermine basic communication within a negotiation. Ensuring any issues are avoided by using audio quality settings within most video conferencing tools such as Zoom in advance of the negotiation is consequently important. The vast majority of digital technology issues can be prevented, with the use of simple checks in advance of interactions helping to facilitate effective digital interaction.
3. Opening the Negotiation
In any negotiation, it is extremely important to initiate the negotiation properly. In almost all cases, there will be an exchange of pleasantries or other business discussed that forward the negotiation. As such, it is beneficial for one of the negotiation parties to take the initiative and formally begin negotiations. This is best achieved through the use of set induction techniques. Set induction is in essence any verbal utterance, gesture or audio-visual aid that introduces a topic. This acts as a frame for all that follows, as such effectively deploying set induction techniques can help a negotiating party dictate the structure and flow of the negotiation.
It is also useful to deploy these techniques in a digital context because it offers a clear structure to interaction that is more efficient, cutting down on disjointed cross-talking and general uncertainty. The opening of negotiation should focus on rapport and trust-building, which will lend to a positive and fluid negotiation. This is particularly important in a digital contact, because this positive and clearly defined opening can bridge the divide between the negating party and absent physical contact and proximity.
4. Maintain Professional Communication
Throughout the negotiation, best endeavours must be made to maintain effective communication. This is supported by limiting technological issues, thus avoiding unnecessary impediments to clear communication. There are distinct issues that video conferencing possesses, such as instances of miscommunication, because of the unique social detachment digital platforms can experience. At a very basic level, not being in the same room as another negotiation party impedes certain core tenets of interpersonal connection. It is therefore essential that a negotiator effectively adapts to a simulated shared room, while interacting with others virtually. The camera angle, device position and resulting position the negotiator addresses it from are potentially consequential. This angle should be natural and square to the negotiator’s face.
There are two central considerations: eye contact and posture. Eye contact and the signals that humans send with their eyes are a cornerstone of interpersonal communication. In a negotiation, it is essential that good eye contact and facial gesticulation isn’t neglected in a virtual context. As such, it is useful for a negotiator to use camera check tools to practise on the device to achieve a natural and effective camera presence. Appearing distracted and not focusing on one position can send confused and potentially damaging non-verbal signals to the opposing negotiation party. It is also useful for a negotiator to be aware of their facial expressions. This could involve practising being affirmative – to signal agreement, muted disapproving to signal disagreement and most importantly, a positive and engaged resting pose.
To consolidate this, a negotiator must consider their posture during a virtual negotiation. Adopting a relaxed, assured and professional posture is important to send the appropriate message to the opposing negotiating party. The negotiator should have their shoulders back with the view of the camera acting as a frame which they will adapt their posture accordingly.
Further, the negotiator should have their hands out of view when they are not illustrating a point, or at an appropriate distance from the camera. This will avoid distracting screen dominating hand gestures and potential disconcerting fidgeting. It is also important, particularly in an affirmative context, for a negotiator to use their body to respond to dialogue by leaning in to show both engagement and interest. The opposing negotiation party will respond positively to this clear signal.
5. Close the Negotiation
When negotiation is coming to a conclusion, or a one party wants to conclude a negotiation, there are several key considerations. It is important as a negotiator that you give signals in language and non-verbal that you wish for proceedings to be brought to an end. Equally, it is important to look for these signals as the opposing side. In a virtual context, this is even more important. As not being physically present in the same location as the opposing party brings a natural disconnect, virtual settings can potentially lead to confusion within and between parties.
Furthermore, all parties must agree on the outcomes of the negotiation and be clear about these outcomes. In a virtual context, this is particularly relevant as there is more chance of miscommunication. Therefore, it is useful to complement or follow-up such a conclusion with other forms of digital communication for clarification of finer details. This could take the form of an email, summarising the main points of negotiation and agreement, to be sent within 24 hours. Fundamentally, in a virtual negotiation – like any other form of negotiation – strong communication is key, particularly in the closing stages.
Clarity and honesty are central. Concessions should be made from a place of strength and small in nature. Negotiation should not be concluded if there is an unnecessary imbalance in the negotiated outcome – this is potentially damaging. Efforts should be made to frame any settlement as mutually advantageous. When an agreed settlement is reached, celebrating it is still important, even when it may be impossible for both parties to be in the same physical location, creative means of celebration should be considered for both parties. This could take the form of an informal breakout or celebratory virtual meeting.
Summary: 5 Steps to Successful Negotiations
Virtual negotiations are more relevant than ever. Innovation has seen virtual platforms like Zoom become technically advanced and increasingly vital in recent years. Bridging the physical divide between two or more teleconferencing parties, such platforms are incredibly useful for business. This coupled with social conditions, including the COVID-19 pandemic has affirmed this relevance. This has been particularly prominent for a range of different negotiations. That said, there are still many challenges to conducting successful negotiations using virtual platforms.
Utilising this step-by-step process will help facilitate a successful digital negotiation, by affirming skilled communication in a virtual context. Moreover, as laid out, avoiding basic digital blunders in a strategic manner is also key for negotiators. Fundamentally, fusing skilled interpersonal communication skills with digital knowhow is essential to achieving successful negotiations in a virtual context. Pursuing a step-by-step approach is useful to cognitively and practically prepare for effective negotiation outcomes in the virtual setting.