Dealing with the Minefield of Negotiating by Email

Negotiating by email is an unavoidable fact of life in today’s world. Whether you see the world as expanding or shrinking in the current global climate, one thing is certain. Face to face negotiations will not always be possible. In fact, technological interactions without traditional human connection seem to be on the rise. Some actually consider email to be the dominant form of communication in business today. As a result, I thought I’d be remiss not to address the issue. There are pros and cons to this mode of negotiation, both worth noting. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of email negotiation (with some do’s and don’ts thrown in for good measure). Knowledge is power and can help counter the potential negative impacts through simple strategies you can adopt to enhance the email bargaining experience.

At the outset, it’s important to recognize that negotiating by email is not the same as face-to-face (or even telephone) negotiation. Ignore this simple fact at your peril. There are several pitfalls to be aware of. But first let’s consider the benefits of this mode of bargaining. Email tends to give the illusion of insulation, allowing people to ask questions that may be more difficult face-to-face. Note that I’ve listed this under advantages although some would consider this a drawback. A less controversial benefit is that email negotiation can clearly save time and money as it avoids unnecessary travel required with face to face meetings. It reduces stress for many people as it allows for delayed response time with the corresponding ability to contemplate and measure your reaction/response. The immediate reaction time typically required in both face-to-face and telephone negotiations can be stressful and anxiety-inducing for many and so email can be a welcome relief from that pressure. Tied to that, the additional response time can avoid the risk of explosive outbursts or ill-considered quick deals.

And yet, it’s estimated that email negotiations end in impasse half the time and studies suggest less satisfaction in the process. Why is that? Potential for miscommunication is an obvious culprit. While words are a fundamental means of communicating, so too are body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and touch. All of these modes are necessary for effective communication and yet all of the latter communication modes are missing in email negotiations. Added to that is the absence of context. In other words, there is no information other than the words on the screen. There’s no ability to gauge reaction which can be a significant handicap (both in understanding the other party and in being understood yourself).

As a means of communication, email tends to elicit concise exchanges. People are less likely to engage in small talk or other personal exchanges, but rather, get straight to business. Absent potential softening that comes with in person exchanges, this style can often come across as terse, rude or confrontational. There tends to be higher likelihood of misreading tone and taking the message the wrong way. You’ve no doubt been at the giving or receiving end of this conundrum at some point.

In addition to the inadvertent communication mishaps, some suggest that there is a greater tendency to bluff and outright lie in email communications versus face to face encounters. The suggestion is that the screen offers a buffer that reduces accountability, empathy and concern about the bargaining counterpart’s reaction (much like cyber-bullying). Arguably, with this comes less focus on mutual interests and more focus on positional bargaining. It’s easier to say ‘no’ to a computer screen than a person. On this theory, decreased accountability also results in agreements that don’t last as parties may be more likely to back away from commitments made via email. This result may also arise as there is a tendency to prepare less for email negotiations. When not properly prepared, people are more likely to get caught with their pants down and end up making commitments that they later regret and try to back away from.

Privacy concerns also raise their ugly heads in email negotiations. Controlling access to emails can be challenging so you can never be sure who is reading the communications. Tied to that, emails constitute a permanent history of the exchange so you’re never sure who is being included in the communications. With blind copies and forwarding this holds true both during the discussions and after. Not surprisingly, this can inhibit open communications.

It also makes it harder to build rapport and trust (two key elements of the ARE FIT system). Needless to say, with inhibited trust or rapport comes decreased understanding and a corresponding increase in conflict. This can be the kiss of death to effective negotiations. A corollary to that is decreased opportunity for brainstorming and creativity.

So how do we offset these risks posed by email bargaining? t’s important to make a conscious effort to find ways to establish connection. Here’s a few quick tips to help in that regard:

  1. If possible, try to meet in person before starting email negotiations. This allows the opportunity to get to know each other, observe non-verbal cues, gauge reactions to each other and in so doing, build rapport.
  2. In the same vein, try to build in some phone calls and/or in person meetings at some point during protracted email negotiations if at all possible.
  3. Make a conscious effort to personalize the communications and add human feeling and emotion where you can. Give the other party a sense of you personally and try to elicit the same from them. Seek out common ground where you can.
  4. Don’t be afraid to express empathy, concern, doubt, etc. while still projecting optimism about the prospects of reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution.
  5. Share personal stories or anecdotes and be sure to ask about their personal circumstances where appropriate. In other words, make small talk via email. Make the exchanges mimic ‘real life’ as much as possible.
  6. Consider supplementing your email communications with other media.
  7. At a minimum, make sure to have personalized greetings and sign-offs rather than being ‘all business’ right out of the gate.
  8. Avoid ambiguities by making sure to ask questions early and as often as required. Also use this tactic to draw the other party into problem-solving mode.
  9. Remember that email may seem rude when not intended so be intentional about not over-reacting and not responding ‘in kind’. Take a breath. Consider calling rather than emailing in response and/or to clarify. This allows you to try to keep the atmosphere positive.
  10. As with any negotiation, be sure to properly prepare. Know your resistance point and BATNA going in.  Consider your strategy and what tactics you may use. Prepare for your concession strategy.

Email is not going away as a means of negotiation anytime soon, notwithstanding its drawbacks, so it’s important to neutralize those potential pitfalls where possible and maximize your opportunity for success. Fear not. All is not lost. Words alone can obviously be a powerful means of communication as is evidenced by the many classic books that make us feel deeply and move us in profound ways. Much like those classics, however, as the authors can attest, it just takes more care and more work. But if mastering this skill can give you an edge, it’s worth it, right?


email bargaining, Impasse, intentional, Miscommunication, negotiating by email, positive atmosphere, Rapport-building, resistance point

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