Adapting Negotiations to a Remote World


CURT NICKISCH:  Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Many people get flustered when they negotiate. Total pros who are great at their jobs sit down across from their manager and just chicken out. They don’t ask for the salary they believe they deserve because at the heart of a negotiation is conflict – a conflict nestled within a power dynamic and a mix of competing and common interests to sort through. For many people, it’s just not fun, and they’re never happy with the outcome.

And these negotiations just got harder. Instead of getting settled in person at the office, now they happen over videoconference, or phone, or email. Each of those mediums removes some information and context, making it harder for the parties to make the best deal possible.

Our guest today has studied the common pitfalls in virtual negotiations, and she has some practical hacks to overcome these barriers.

Leigh Thompson is a negotiations professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. And she wrote the book Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table. Leigh, thanks for coming on the show.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Very happy to be here.  Thank you, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH:  So is negotiating virtually harder or easier than negotiating in person?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  It’s harder, because often times we just use what has worked in person at the virtual table, and then we kind of scratch our head and wonder, you know, why is it that things didn’t quite go the way that they would have, had I been face to face?  So sometimes we don’t take that moment to think about what tools should I bring to the virtual table, and what tools should I maybe rethink or put on the side bench?

CURT NICKISCH:  You could think that it would be easier.  Right?  That it would be easier to tell somebody no.  If you’re shy about asking for more money, maybe it’s easier to put that in an email rather than say it face to face and see the flinch, you know, on the person’s face.  So somehow the virtual part of it might protect you from some of the emotional difficulties that people have with negotiating?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  You’re absolutely right.  So here’s what I want to say. I think instinctively, most of us feel that we’re at our best when we’re face to face, presumably because we think we’re, I don’t know, great at reading a room, reading body language.  There are two situations which you might want to put a little bit more of a virtual barrier between yourself and the other person.

One situation is if you think that you have the weaker position, meaning that maybe you don’t have a BATNA – a best alternative to a negotiated agreement.  Maybe you feel that the other person is more powerful, you know, in terms of their bargaining position, or in terms of their, you know, status in their organization.  That’s actually a situation where having that extra time to prepare responses, can work in your favor.  And the reason why I’m mentioning that is one of the early studies that I did with some of my colleagues, we looked at people in a pretty contentious situation.  They were kind of, it was a car buying and selling role play.  And when people didn’t have, quote unquote, power or leverage, they did a better job when they were on email versus in direct text.

The second condition that you want to kind of put up a little bit of a virtual barrier, as I like to call it – when negotiations, let’s say, for example, are getting contentious or acrimonious, and maybe you’re going to say something in the heat of the moment that you’ll later regret because in some sense your governor is not working, that’s a perfect example of when you might want to have a little bit of a barrier.

CURT NICKISCH:  It’s interesting.  You’ve used the word barrier a few times now.  So, for the most part, virtual negotiation is more difficult because of barriers, not easier?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Yes.  That’s true.  And some of those barriers we can see and feel and point to and recognize.  But some of those barriers we’re not necessarily psychologically aware of.  And I’ll give you an example.  People, when they negotiation virtually, they tend to get down to business.  I mean, when we do anything virtually, we tend to get down to business.  So we’re set up for Zoom call, or a WebEx meeting, and we jump into the agenda, and let’s get going, and time is money.

CURT NICKISCH:  People are busy, yeah.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Yeah, people are busy.  And what we don’t realize is how much socializing we do when we’re face to face.  We don’t code it that way.  In one of my early studies I did, we did a very simple experiment.  We had people negotiate via email, and we gave them a week to do it.  I mean, they had all the, it was unrestricted.  You know, do it as, you know, send as many messages as you want, and the only twist was, some people were told to have a five minute, non-business phone conversation with their, quote, opponent before this weeklong negotiation started. You can talk about anything except the business matter that you will be engaging in.

And it was amazing.  That five minutes of schmoozing, which, you know, served no purpose except socializing, completely greased the wheels for more collaborative interactions, more trust in the other party, and of course, the economic indicators were absolutely astounding.  A significantly greater percentage of people were able to reach an agreement, and among those who reached an agreement, the people who had, quote, schmoozed, reached much better deals in terms of a win/win metric.  They found the sweet spot.

CURT NICKISCH:  I wonder how this applies for salespeople, for instance, who are often very charismatic.  They’re really good with people.  They’re good at picking up on clues.  And certainly there’s tons of cold calling, right, and there’s tons of sales that’s done over phone or virtually anyway, but there are those people who just really excel in person.  What kinds of things do they need to think about as they have to do what they’ve really comfortably done in person, now do in a virtually or electronic way?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Yes, Curt, I’m so glad you asked about it, because in some sense, the more charismatic you are, I think Covid era is more challenging for those people.  So charisma is really kind of, I call it, you know, your P charisma, your physical charisma, how you fill up a room, how you use your voice, what chair you choose to sit in at the client meeting or at the task force meeting, and power suits, and how you gesture.

And all those things either don’t translate, or they’re completely imperceptible when we’re in the virtual meeting.  So in my book, I talk about E-charisma, which is electronic charisma.  And the example I like to share is that when I’m in the physical classroom, I can almost predict ahead of time which people will seem to have more, you know, I guess thought leadership in the class.  You know, when they speak, people listen, and it has to do with vocal quality.  It has to do, sometimes, with stature and a lot of things.

But when I’m in the virtual classroom, and I daresay when people are at the virtual negotiation table, there’s a different set of attributes or qualities that really seem to give a person a lot of stature.  And it has to do more with the substance of what they’re saying, and their delivery.  And less with their gesticulations and the vocal quality of their voice, because you can’t choose to sit at the head of the table.  We can’t really see your power suit.  Right?  We don’t even know how tall you are.

So substance is a lot more important.  And it’s true that we, the way we build trust virtually, which is absolutely essential for negotiation, and relationships in general, is different when we do it virtually, versus face to face.  When we do it virtually, trust is initially built on what we call your cognitive competence, which is a fancy way of saying, do I think Curt knows what he’s talking about?  And maybe Curt is saying, gosh, does Leigh seem to have her act together on the substantive issue?

Now, over time, we start to then develop what we call the affective component, or the emotional component of trust.  Is Curt a good person?  And then you might ask yourself, does Leigh have my back in this situation?  Can I tell her things in confidence?  So I guess the key here is, what I’m telling a lot of my salespeople to do – my students, my clients – is when you’re trying to build that new relationship, you want to make sure that you quickly demonstrate your professional competence, your substance matter expertise.  You’re not going to do this in an egoistic way, but you’ve also got to show them that human side.  So, you want to really bring both of those to the table, both of those to the conversation.

CURT NICKISCH:  What’s an example of that?  I’m just trying to picture that.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Well, an example of that, to go back to your example of salespeople, I guess, in the pre-Covid era I suppose a salesperson might have walked in to a new prospect’s, let’s say office, trying to sell them, in don’t know, maybe insurance or some kind of financial investment plan, and they might have pointed to a picture on their client’s desk and said, oh, do you have a son that looks like he went to Iowa State?  Well, that’s really great.  And I see, you know – they might have done that more in a kind of social way.

And the new era, I’m not going to be able to look around at your office and find that point of similarity or kind of, so I’m going to need to quickly demonstrate why I’m, why my firm is the best provider for your insurance purposes.  And I’m going to need to quickly come with my substance matter expertise in a non-egoistic way.  But at the same time, I’ve got to show you that I care about you as a human being.

CURT NICKISCH:  you’ve talked about how, you know, communicating over email gives you some advantages, because you have time, and you can really think carefully about what you say, and make sure it’s not too brusque, etc.  And you’re also saying, get back down to business too quickly.  What other mistakes do people make when they’re negotiating or communicating virtually?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  There’s a long list, Curt. Why don’t we kind of narrow it down to when we’re negotiating virtually, we tend to go into what I call a binary discussion.  You make a proposal.  Leigh, how about I buy your product at this price and these terms?  And I say, nope, that’s not going to do it.  So I give you no/yes responses, probably a lot more no than yes.

And what I should be doing is giving you what I call hot/warm/cold responses.  So Curt, we’re going in the wrong direction here.  I like what you said five minutes ago more than what you’re saying now.  So they kind of get into this yes/no binary response.  Sometimes in the absence of any visuals, we tend to make a lot more single issue offers.

So the gray colored glasses effect that I write about in the book refers to the, I guess, depressing research finding that positive messages are interpreted as neutral, when we’re communicating virtually.  Neutral messages are perceived as negative.  So in some sense, it’s kind of, people are more in a glass is half empty, gloom and doom point of view.

CURT NICKISCH:  They’re doom reading.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  They’re doom reading.

CURT NICKISCH:  They’re doom reading their emails.  Right?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Right. And I think that one of the reasons for that is that communication is a lot more ambiguous when it’s done virtually.  I mean, is somebody being sarcastic?  I don’t know.  Was this said in jest?  I don’t know.  They used a smiley face, or they – so we have a hard time interpreting the intended meaning of messages.

CURT NICKISCH:  How do you communicate that in an email?  Like, what’s a good ratio?  If positive is neutral, and neutral is negative, and negative is especially negative, it’s not your classic pillow and a punch feedback style?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  It’s not your, right. Make sure you have a good beginning and a good end.  Right?  So don’t just kind of reply back with a, you know, that’s too low.  You’re going to need to come up a lot higher.  Just say, you know, I’m kind of struggling here with some of the terms.  And give a little bit more of the context that people might naturally do when they’re face to face.

CURT NICKISCH:  Let’s talk about some hacks of yours that might work particularly well in this pandemic world, when a lot of us, like it or not, are working and negotiating remotely and virtually.  What are some practical things that our listeners can use?

LEIGH THOMPSON: One of the things that I’ve been experiencing on our new Zoom, Google Hangouts, WebEx meetings, is just that people tend to turn off cameras.  They don’t turn them on, or they quickly turn them off.  And so, in our research, we did an experiment where we had people negotiate, this was all I believe over email, and sometimes they had a little thumbnail picture of themselves, and sometimes they didn’t.

And it was quite profound how that, even a still picture of yourself led to more sweet spot, win/win outcomes than when people were not visible at all.  So what I’m telling people is that in some sense, don’t go dark.  Maybe you’re having a bad hair day.  But chances are, with all the extra money and value you’re going to create at the table, you can fix your hair.  So don’t go dark.

CURT NICKISCH:  You’re taking, yeah, you’re taking information away, again, and if you don’t have to, don’t do it.

LEIGH THOMPSON: It’s less about information, and it’s more about, you’re removing the human factor.  Right?  And literally, when I see you on camera, and when I see you, at least in a picture, different parts of my brain are now activated.  The parts of my brain that have to do with rapport and trust building and a release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.  I can’t shake your hand anymore.  Right?  We’re social distancing.

But if I can see you, then I’m going to have a little bit more goodwill released on a hormonal level that’s going to help us in this negotiation.  Now, sometimes, I know people are talking about Zoom fatigue, and we can kind of overdo it.  Even this morning I was on a business call, and you know, initially it was like, oh, let’s do Zoom.  And I thought, you know, there’s only two of us.  There’s not a presentation we have to kind of share.  Can we just do an old-fashioned phone call?

But one of the things that I tell people to do when you’re on an old fashioned phone call or with the cameras turned off, is either put a mirror in front of you, so that you can make sure that, it’s kind of based on facial feedback theory – by putting a mirror in front of you, it can be a check to see, gosh, I don’t look like a very pleasant person.  I bet I am not coming across really well with my client or colleague.

If you can’t stomach putting a picture of yourself up, then do what I did once in one of my first podcasts.  I taped a picture of a lecture hall on my wall, so that during the podcast, I imagined communicating to real people.  So again, I wanted to get those parts of the brain working that have to do with, you know, humanizing the other person.

CURT NICKISCH:  Speaking of mirroring, some of your research has been on language style matching – which is to take or mimic the same way that some people might copy other people’s body languages, just to be a more likeable or to synch up with them, is to speak kind of the same way so that they feel an affinity through that.  Is that something you’d recommend?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Yes.  And language style matching is not mimicking.  Right?  But it’s matching.  So if I’ve noticed that my customer or my client or my colleague is using certain words, and the magic here is, is doing the noticing, I might want to feed those words back, not, again, not in a mimicking type style, but what that’s doing is, it’s affirming my counterparty’s view of the world, their mental model.  It’s literally kind of getting us in mental alignment.

Now, the truth of the matter is that I think some people do this naturally.  I think that some really excellent salespeople have kind of learned almost to do this unconsciously.  Now, for those of us who haven’t had years and years of sales training, I know I haven’t, I’m going to have to be a little bit more thoughtful and purposeful about this.  So sometimes I know what I’ve tried to do when I’m having a meeting or even doing a negotiation is, I keep a little pad and paper next to me, because they can’t see that on the camera, but I’m just kind of picking up little nuances and phrases and words that they’re using so that when I do my response, I can kind of feed back to them those same words.  It clarifies the communication.  It’s a way of completing affirming their world view and checking understanding.

CURT NICKISCH:  And that gets back to trust building.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Yes, it gets back to trust building.  And that would be —

CURT NICKISCH:  Should you correct them on their grammar?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  You probably should not do that.  Right?  You probably should not correct them on their grammar.

CURT NICKISCH:  Leigh, we’ve talked a lot about the difficulties, the barriers, the dangers of negotiating and communicating virtually.  You’ve given us some hacks and some practical advice for overcoming those.  If you put it all together, is there just one big miscommunication about virtual negotiation that these help clear up?

LEIGH THOMPSON:  I think the biggest misunderstanding is that they think it will be a lot more efficient and a lot more productive, and it’s not.  And so, I can’t cut to the chase.  I need to be able to build rapport and ease into the conversation.

And don’t blindside people. Because remember – one of the things that we’re really missing in the virtual Covid era is shared context. So for example I might be trying to have a business – a sensitive business conversation – with somebody who’s currently sitting in the in-laws’ vacation house and the kids aren’t really being babysat.

So in other words, don’t blindside them. Always check the context just like look, I think we have 45 minutes for our call today. My intention was to talk about you know the promotion and the raise. I want to make sure that we’re both in a good position to do this. So in other words, check the context, tell them you know here’s my intention for the conversation. Maybe you have some ideas? And then don’t forget about the relationship. It’s my goal that we both be in a very productive organization that we continue to have our market share rise, and that’s why I want to talk about my remuneration. And I have some thoughts on that.

So be clear about here’s my – the point that I’m going to make in this conversation. Here’s the topic. I need to be a little bit more direct because the other person is not going to understand the intended meaning of my message.

CURT NICKISCH:  Leigh, this has been really great to hear.  Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.

LEIGH THOMPSON:  Thank you so much for having me.  It’s been a pleasure, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH:  That’s Leigh Thompson.  She’s a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  And her new book is, Negotiating the Sweet Spot, The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe.  We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt.  Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.  Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast.  I’m Curt Nickisch.


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