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The Trust Factor in Virtual Negotiations

Here is the good news from 60 years of empirical research: there are hardly any significant differences between face-to-face and digitally facilitated negotiation. Except for trust. And here is the bad news. This makes all the difference.

Virtual channels for negotiation have been around for a very long time. As early as the 1960s researchers started to test whether so-called computer-mediated communication (CMC) produces different outcomes compared to face-to-face settings. Most studies either find no significant differences or they contradict one another. Apparently, the precise setting and negotiation context matter greatly. The trust factor is the big exception, however. Evidence in a meta-study from professor Ingmar Geiger shows that trust levels are significantly lower in negotiations that are conducted virtually.

Team meetings with trusted colleagues or negotiations with trusted counterparts are perhaps less pleasurable and less fun, they are not less effective

This is perhaps why so many of us have actually experienced a real difference since Covid-19. Team meetings with trusted colleagues or negotiations with trusted counterparts are perhaps less pleasurable and less fun, they are not less effective: we are able to do business together and counting the decrease in travel cost, we can be more rather than less productive in those partnerships. However, there is often a pronounced difference in setting up a cooperative relationship, let alone conducting a full negotiation, with counterparts we have never met before, or whom we have a complex relationship with fraught with history... Silly chit-chat, shaking hands and drinking coffee in the same room actually does matter a great deal. We realise this only too well after more than a year of lockdowns and working from home.

We can only tackle Trust if we realise that we -our counterpart and ourselves- are jointly 1-0 behind

So if negotiators are 1-0 behind on trust (or 3-0 in some instances when there is a history of miscommunication or distrust) do we accept defeat or work our way back into the game? That is a rhetorical question of course. We just have to work a little (or a lot...) harder at the trust factor! And of course, we can only do this if we realise fully well that we -our counterpart and ourselves- are jointly 1-0 behind! It takes two to tango... But it only takes one to make a first invitation to dance...

How we work at trust in virtual negotiations is thus the million dollar question. Here are three mindset pointers and practical suggestions on how we can begin to tackle this challenge.

1. Switch to a Multichannel Mindset

To think of negotiation as the moment you are together in a Zoom, Webex or Teams conference is to think of your summer holiday as only that moment when you take in the sun lying next to the hotel pool. Important -perhaps even the most important phase- but your holiday is much more than that, including travel, preparation and lots of joy in anticipation of your break (hopefully).

In the pre-pandemic world many professionals conceived of negotiation as the moment you get into the room physically. Now videoplatforms have replaced that room. Of course in the "old" world, negotiation and in particular the trust building part started much earlier than we often say out loud: in office corridors, somewhere near the coffee machine, at dinner tables and especially in breaks during negotiation sessions. If these physical encounters outside formal meeting rooms are so important, how can we replace them when we are barred from meeting our counterparts in the same place?

One way to do so is to see videoplatforms as the new "formal", the new official rooms for negotiating with our counterparts, both external and internal. This means parallel digital channels can become the coffee machine or lunch get together, allowing for the building of inter-personal connections and the establishment of (more) trust. Whether other channels are both effective and appropriate to support trust-building depends on context so there is probably no easy protocol for success.

  • Phone conversations (bilateral) can be extremely effective in fostering inter-personal connection. In most cultural settings, no appointments need to be made. A spontaneous and thus informal call to check-in on the counter-party, to address a few logistical items or to "get on the same page" with respect to a joint intention for the (upcoming) negotiation can be extremely effective.

  • Direct messaging (WhatsApps, sms and alike) is another channel. Less intrusive than phone calls, messaging provides the other side space and time to answer and fosters a personal connection. Like e-mail, it is much advised not to use it for the expression of criticism or negative emotions, which can quickly be taken out of context. Through emoticons and other visuals, positive intentions and atmosphere can be communicated.

  • E-mail is far more formal and usually part of the game in any virtual negotiation setting, if only to plan the videoconferencing time and agenda and share proposals back and forth. It is therefore less suitable as a creative inter-personal and informal channel to build trust and rapport with the other side. However, opportunities to express partnership, common values and reaffirm joint interests through e-mail are often overlooked.

  • Social media can be a channel of connection and inter-personal engagement as well. Again, much depends on context and what is the other party's comfort zone (more than your own comfort zone as an agile negotiator is able to use all channels). Following a counterpart on LinkedIn (and perhaps posting the occasional respons or encouragement) is perfectly acceptable in most settings, for example.

The above channels are not a must-have in each and every negotiation. The issue is rather to ask the question in advance: what multiple channels will I (or my team) use to work at the trust factor in parallel to whatever official channel there is? What channels will I use just prior to formal negotiations, and, equally important, just after they ended? In what ways can I truly check in with how the other side is feeling about the issues we are discussing?

2. Pre-craft Your Opening Statement

A good start is half the battle, so goes a famous english proverb. In negotiation, a good start is often all of the battle. This is why, amongst other reasons, high-level diplomatic negotiations often start with the reading out of (constructive) statements, sometimes open to the press corps as well. Although they are more protocol than substance they have an important symbolic role in setting the right tone of voice.

In physical settings that are less high-level than ministerial negotiations opening statements are often skipped or replaced by a verification of the order of the agenda. Those physical meetings, however, are often preceded by informal get-togethers or chit chat in the hallways, allowing for some sense of connection to grow. In virtual negotiations, we are often overtaken by a maddening urge for efficiency: let's get down to business as soon as possible. Even though we have saved ourselves hours (if not days) in travel, we are inclined to proceed with the agenda at a pace that is murdering every opportunity to foster connection (and build trust) in a virtual environment. Doing a digital check-in can be one way to make the necessary space and foster connection. But if there is no time or appetite for this, an informal opening statement on the constructive intentions from you (or your organisation) in this negotiation can work very well in setting the right tone. Mentioning purpose, common interests, progress made to date, re-affirming the partnership and alike all can be important ingredients. In essence, you compensate for the lack of body-language and coffee machine chit chat through an engaging verbal opening. And while prepared (perhaps jointly with your team members), it is preferably spoken in free form (without any cheat sheets).

3. Positively Surprise the Other Side

Strong assumptions or stereotypes play an important and often negative role in negotiations. Consider the following strong views. My counterpart is only interested in her own career. The other side is far larger than we are and will gladly use the power they have over us. They will hold back information for as long as they possibly can. My so-called "partner" is not willing to move one inch to help us meet our interests. We may at times, rightly or wrongly, hold such views of our counterparts. It is important to realise they may hold all types of strong views about us.

In face-to-face negotiations strong assumptions on the other are more easily verified and corrected. In a physical setting we quickly discover that they are human (nuanced, caring, kind, polite, listening, etc.) after all. If counterparts hold strong views about us (because of past behavior, size or power differences or any other reason) this can be a major stumbling block to build or restore trust. Whatever strong assumptions they hold, the question is what we can do or say to start slowly chipping away at those assumptions. More than anything this is often a team exercise. Can we map what strong views may exist about us? Can we think of ways to gradually nuance those views, perhaps eliminate them? What surprises (a surprise in behavior, in the process or on part of substance that is on the table) can we think of that may help us achieve this impact?


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