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Many experienced negotiators have honed their skills for a specific negotiation context: in-person meetings, where reading the room and observing body language can be important elements to building trust and achieving success. But the pandemic has made in-person negotiating difficult or impossible for many people, and even after the health threat subsides, the business community's new collective fluency with Zoom may make remote negotiation more common than it was before.
Chicago Booth’s George Wu says that it’s true that some aspects of negotiation are easier in person than online—but for other aspects, the reverse is true. To make the most of the new negotiating environment, Wu says professionals should think critically about what’s easier about negotiating on Zoom, what challenges Zoom-based negotiators can anticipate and prepare for, and what new possibilities the mechanics of the platform offer.
This spring, I taught my Advanced Negotiations class. It’s a class that I teach every spring. This year was a little different. We got notice about three weeks before the start of the quarter that we were going online. Naturally, a lot of the students had trepidations about taking basically any class online, but especially a class that they think of as being synonymous with interacting with people face-to-face.
Surveys that I’ve done with alums have suggested that almost nobody negotiated through video conferencing before the pandemic. They negotiated face-to-face. They negotiated by phone. But they didn’t negotiate in this thing that’s kind of in between. And I think one of the, at least, arguments that I used for why they should take this class is that a lot of negotiation is going to be moving online.
Obviously, all of the negotiations during the pandemic. But even after the pandemic is over, it’s likely that COVID-19 is gonna give a jump-start to just more Zoom negotiation. One of the things I challenged the students with is thinking about how online negotiation, call it Zoom negotiation, is different from face-to-face negotiation. And what that means is that there are going to be things that are better about negotiating face-to-face rather than Zoom, and there are gonna be things that are probably better about negotiating via Zoom rather than face-to-face. I actually had students, as one of their final projects, essentially write a critical essay where what they did was make sense of that experience, think a little bit about spending the quarter on Zoom negotiating and how that was different than their previous course, which they did face-to-face.
The second thing is that I gave them a list of 25 negotiation behaviors, everything from building up trust to detecting lies to staying resolute in terms of your behavior, and I asked them to evaluate whether those behaviors were equally hard or easy online and face-to-face, easier face-to-face or easier online. And, on the second one, I think one of the interesting things is, probably consistent with people’s intuition, is that Zoom negotiation was challenging. About two-thirds of the behaviors people judged as being easier face-to-face than online. But what’s interesting is that nine of the 25—36 percent—people actually thought that Zoom had an advantage over face-to-face.
And I think that raises a more general point, which is that I think that one of the things that’s really important to do is not just to talk ourselves into the fact that this is a deficient technology that’s worse than something that we ordinarily know how to do, but that it may have some advantages. And, in particular, that there were a couple of things that I think are both intuitive and maybe not so intuitive. The things that they thought were challenging were things like building up trust, establishing trust, communicating, and things of that sort. And I think it’s largely because Zoom is not something where it’s easy to read body language, or it’s kind of hard to maintain attention and things of that sort.
On the other hand, there were things that I thought people thought that Zoom had an advantage. So, they thought it was easier to be less emotional. It was easier to be rational. It was easier to kind of stick with a plan and things of that sort. And so, I think that’s interesting that they felt that there were both advantages and disadvantages. And obviously, one of the things that you’d like to do is that, if you were negotiating on Zoom regularly, you’d try to figure out, once you know what some of the disadvantages are, to kind of try to deal with those.
A lot of the students had really remarkable things in terms of their essays. One line that I really remember that one of the students said is that, “Remember that your webcam is your business attire.” And I think that’s, in some ways it’s sort of obvious and in some ways very profound. And I think that one of the things is that, when you watch people negotiate on Zoom, there are a lot of things that frankly aren’t as professional as we would make them if we were negotiating face-to-face. So, people’s cameras are looking at the wrong angle. The lighting is wrong. All kinds of things like that. And I think many of those things are actually hard. So, when I was teaching, I spent the whole quarter—probably didn’t get it right, only sort of started getting it right at the very end—in where to look at the webcam in order for me to be looking at them rather than looking to the side or looking down or looking up or whatever. And it really requires some practice.
And I think, just more generally, just to remember that the professional appearance that you want to convey is hard to do on Zoom because it’s mediated through this technology. Now, I think one advantage that Zoom has in that way is that we can actually get a lot of feedback about ourselves in a pretty natural way. And so, everybody’s having meetings all the time on Zoom. These meetings are easy to record. And I think that, if you have permission to record them, not necessarily negotiations, you can think of them as being trial runs in some ways to see whether you’re acting or projecting in exactly the professional way that you’d like. So watching these meetings, seeing how you’re looking, looking at your appearance, all those kinds of things I think are really useful. And I think that they are bits of feedback that we don’t ordinarily get, and they’re especially important in this kind of environment of Zoom that is largely unnatural for a lot of us.
One last thing about Zoom negotiation, which I think is an advantage, which is that a lot of times what people have is they have a hard time saying certain things in negotiation, sort of having hard conversations, being tough in negotiations, saying exactly the right words. And we practice those words, and we practice them, and we practice them. We’re convinced that we’re gonna deliver those words in those hard moments, and then, when we’re there, we’re nervous. We start. We give up. We sound pathetic, whatever. And I think one advantage of Zoom over face-to-face is those words can be there. They can be on your screen. You could be reading those words in a way, hopefully that is natural, like experienced people do when they read from teleprompters and things like that. But the idea here is that your desktop can be a form of preparation and, in some ways, a crutch for you in negotiation that you ordinarily wouldn’t have. And I just use that as one example.
I think, if you think about situations—and I encourage people to think about this: imagine that Zoom is not only as good as face-to-face, but you are a better negotiator on Zoom than face-to-face. Imagine that. Imagine that’s true. How did that come about? And I think that’s an exciting way to look at Zoom. And I think, if you look at Zoom that way or you look at online negotiation that way, it encourages you to really think out of the box, think about ways that you can leverage some of the advantages and some of the technological differences about Zoom in a way that actually makes you not an inferior negotiator, not be in an inferior situation, but actually a situation where you do better, and maybe even the negotiation on the whole goes smoother.
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