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5 Non-Verbal Tips For Negotiating Online

1. The rule of thirds

We have all seen them: mouths and noses up close and personal in professional meetings online. Even if you love your own eye lashes they are most likely too much for your counterpart... So how large should your talking head be in virtual meetings? The difficult part of this question is that it is partly determined by the screen size of your counterpart, how close or how far she is situated from her screen and by how many other people take part in the videoconference (if it is just you…you are the whole screen in most video platforms). The safe bet -going by various pieces of advice online- seems to be that your head fills about one third of the image on the screen. That usually leaves some space for neck and chest and provides the option of showing hand gestures. The latter can be a helpful element of non-verbal communication.

2. Dress to the occasion

The deeper blend of work and private life, and work and private space and time is one of the consequences of the pandemic and one that will surely remain to a great extent. That is great news for some and bad news for others. But whether you love it or hate it, a professional negotiation is still that, even if you conduct it from your garden patio. For business sectors where casual dressing is the norm anyway there is really no fuzz. But in more conservative professions, including government and diplomacy, smart advice is to more or less show up as you would in a physical meeting. Perhaps with one notch off. After all, wearing those high heels will not be noticed unless they give you supreme confidence. And suit and tie may be overdoing it if you are calling in from your 9-year old’s bedroom.

3. Make a virtual handshake

Shaking hands -or in some cultures kissing on the cheek, bowing or placing the hand on the heart- is a key ritual for meeting the other. In complex, tough negotiations, this is all the more important as it signals the mutual intention to meet one another in peace; a symbol of common humanity as it were. A virtual handshake is not some virtual gimmick of two symbolic hand gestures in a chat window. It is any exchange at the start of a meeting that has similar meaning and impact as the physical shaking of hands. Wave, smile, look into the camera at the other person (something we tend not to do as we watch our screens instead). Another option is to share a visual that says something meaningful about yourself, your organization or your preferred relationship with the other side (a piece of art, a picture of your team, a visual congratulating the other side on a recent national religious holiday or a victory of their football team). Of course it can, and probably should be, vocal as well. This can be as simple as a short opening statement (I am very pleased we are meeting; I wish we would be in the same room to shake hands) or a question that embodies authentic curiosity in the other person and their situation (Where are you calling from? Are you still locked down at home or have you been able to meet your colleagues at the office?).

4. Lean in

Though facial expressions are still identifiable (depending on how large you appear on the screen on the other side), overall body-language is less visible in videoconferencing. Communicating openness and a curiosity to listen to the perspectives of the other side is therefore somewhat more challenging. One technique to both listen more actively (that is consciously listening with the aim to understand rather than respond) and communicating that you are doing so, is to slightly tilt your head and gently lean towards your device. This does not work if it is merely a physical trick, but combined with the intention to actually listen and ask (at least) one follow-up question, you are communicating an open style and indirectly inviting the other side to do the same.

5. Make a conscious decision to watch yourself… or not and communicate congruently

The great advantage and disadvantage of videoconferencing is that you can see yourself on the screen, usually as a smaller side window situated next to your counterpart(s). This increases self-awareness. For people who hold insecurities about their physical appearance a constant mirror on the screen is unhelpful. Most platforms allow for switching off this mode so if your own image is bothering you, make sure you press that off switch. On the other hand, if you are comfortable occasionally checking in on whether your facial expression is congruent with what you want to communicate (e.g. openness, curiosity, listening, assertiveness, empathy, etc.) the small window can actually be very useful. Words matter but they are not the only factor in communication; tone of voice and facial expressions are far more important than many people realise. Do not overdo the mirror check though. It is your attention to the other people in the virtual room that is a far more important factor in negotiating successfully.


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