• Stefan Szepesi

Virtual Negotiation For Teams

How To Prepare Better Together



The golden rule for any negotiation is to invest time and energy in preparation, preferably together with your team. You look at relationships, trust, interests, creative solutions, objective criteria, alternatives (BATNA) and more. Because video negotiation is relatively new for many teams as a negotiating medium, it makes extra sense to prepare together. How can teams deal with the downsides of digital? And how can they make use of the opportunities?


1. Think in advance how to connect, for real

Video is not as rich of a communication medium as it sometimes appears. You can see and hear one another, but it remains poor compared to the richness of a handshake, the smell of coffee and looking each other in the eye (not possible via the screen; a solution has been in the works for a long time but remains elusive). Because establishing rapport is more difficult it is wise to make an extra effort and to think about connection in advance. Moving straight into the agenda is a comfortable and bad habit. There is a human-to-human opening for every virtual negotiation, however formal or informal. And time is no excuse; meaningful connections can be improved in minutes, sometimes even seconds. The same goes for closure and follow-up. A phone call or email afterwards -for example between the chairs of the parties- with the simple objectives to be in closer contact, to measure the 'temperature', to add nuance and to remove any misunderstandings. Preparing as a team, you can come up with more creative and meaningful ways to connect with the other side than you can just by yourself.

2. Make internal agreements about “your own channel”

Especially where team members are calling in from different locations, it can be very useful to maintain your own discrete communication channel during the negotiation. Is your colleague missing information? Do you notice that an important question has not yet been asked? Is there any outside news that could influence the negotiation? Sending apps and messages can be a way to discretely address each other without the other party noticing. It can also be very distracting and impact poorly on your performance in the hardest skill in negotiation: active listening. Therefore, make clear in advance whether you will use your own channel, what it is for and what information you will and will not exchange within your team during the negotiation.

3. Know the platform

Do you determine the software that will be used or is it the other party? Either way, make sure you know how it works. Can you chat, send private messages and can the conversation be recorded (with or without the knowledge of the parties)? Can you also call in by phone? For more confidential conversations, what about information security? And for governments and companies that are bound by all kinds of data protection rules, which information (documents) can and cannot be shared via the video software? Is it an important negotiation and are you unfamiliar with the platform? Then make sure you do part of your internal preparation via the platform.


4. Clarify the agenda in advance and avoid surprises

What will you discuss and in what order? If there is uncertainty about this with one or more parties, you can assume that valuable time will be lost in agreeing the order of business. In a negotiation in which one party is more powerful than the other, it may occur that little is deliberately announced about the agenda in advance. The degree to which the other party accepts this can be an important signal of the willingness to make much larger concessions later on. If you do not like the process dynamics at the front, indicate this at an early stage. Surprises are often spoilers in virtual meetings, more so than in physical settings. So consider whether or not to share a proposal with the other party in advance. Coming out of nowhere with many details will often invite a reluctant or avoidant response - "we will look at it" - where you were perhaps hoping for an engaged or even a creative conversation about your ideas.


5. Distribute roles internally: who speaks on what? who listens?

If you are negotiating between two or more teams, it is important everyone knows what their responsibility is. Appointing a listener - someone whose only job is to listen as closely as possible - is by no means superfluous. Who is in charge of the overall conversation and who takes care of specific items? In virtual negotiation it can be a lot more difficult to get the right person to speak at the right time as in-room cues are missing. This is a big challenge when the teams themselves are not together at one location. A chair / facilitator on each side ensures that the process goes smoothly. That does not have to be the colleague with the highest rank. Pre-talks between the chairs can help run a smooth process. Via the chat function, process consultation can take place without a need to stop the conversation at each turn.


6. Agree on the time available and consider multiple sessions

Do you know your natural limit as a veteran of face-to-face meetings? One and a half hours? Two? Three? Whatever it is, you won't be as effective virtually compared to the real negotiating table. That also applies to your partners on the other side of the screen and to your team members. Discuss this in advance: is our/their agenda realistic for one session? Although virtual negotiation seems more efficient, you need more time to clear the gap on trust. Be aware of this and make clear arrangements in advance about the available time. It is more effective to insist beforehand on several sessions than to find out during the negotiation that you will not get through the agenda anyway and will have to negotiate again about the follow-up.


7. Agree on breaks

One very often hears this in online meetings: “shall we continue for just a little while? We will get through the rest in no time..”. But online, in particular, you have a meager picture of the needs of others - in your team and on the other end of the virtual table - to take a break, stretch or visit the bathroom. Discuss the use of breaks with your counterpart, but especially internally in your team. At what times will you feel the greatest need to consult internally in confidence? Taking a break in an online negotiation is just as legitimate and useful as in a conversation around a table. Agreeing on breaks in advance will make it easier to actually take them when you need them most.


8. Prepare yourself carefully for positional dynamics

Strictly speaking, this advice belongs to any negotiation: your side can approach a negotiation constructively and with an open mind, but what if the other side does not? What if you first want to create value and your counterpart wants to divide the pie immediately (to their advantage, of course!). In an online environment you will notice that all parties are more tempted to behave positionally: into the trenches! Less time is spent building trust and exploring and recognizing each other's interests. In your team, discuss in advance what your response will be if you move too quickly from negotiation to bargaining. You are jointly responsible for the process and you do not have to step into the trap of premature positional dynamics.


9. Manage expectations and give everyone the benefit of the doubt


Whatever the science says, online negotiation can be experienced as more difficult compared to encounters in person. If they exist, make your (lower) expectations of the medium explicit. Your team can safely underscore the channel is imperfect and that at times there may be misunderstandings. By underlining this at the start, you create both a connection on, and an understanding about, a common challenge you both share. And finally: give one another the benefit of the doubt. After all, misconceptions can arise at least in part due to the virtual channel itself.