Strategies for Electronic Negotiations

By James A. Baker
Founder and Chairman
Baker Communications 

October 2002


In a global market place, especially one experiencing economic stress and hyper-competitive dynamics, a very high premium is being placed on immediacy, responsiveness, and efficiency. Nowhere is this “need for speed” being more keenly felt than in the arena of negotiation. Deals that used to take several weeks to hammer out – including several face to face meetings – are now being done via phone, email and text messages. The nature of remote negotiating – especially involving email – presents a unique set of challenges. However, once you get your footing, you can negotiate just effectively by keystroke as by face to face. Just remember these simple strategies.

The principles of negotiation never change. The things we talk about so often – the five phases, interests, issues, positions, concessions, wish, aspiration, bottom line – never change. The venue and the method may change, but the dynamics that define negotiating will always be the same. To be successful, you must continue to abide by these principles.

Important Differences

However, the very fact that the electronic process is conducted remotely, and without any discernible personal interaction, creates some unique and important differences. Some of them could even be construed as advantages, though others are clearly obstacles which much be overcome.

Obstacles to overcome in electronic negotiations

In many ways, a good negotiator is a like a good poker player, in that a good negotiator acquires a lot of important information by “reading” the person across the table. Facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, eye movements, gestures – these can all yield important insights into a negotiator’s state of mind, emotional condition, and sincerity (or lack thereof). By reading these physical and auditory signs, an effective negotiator will know how to structure the next response or offer.

Unfortunately, in an electronic negotiation you do not have these clues to aid you, so it will be more difficult to adjust the strategy and structure of the negotiation during the ebb and flow of the negotiation process. How can you really be certain if the other party is pleased by your offer, or when he is offended? Is he being evasive or just having problems finding the correct spelling for the word he wants to use in his response to you? Do his short, terse responses indicate anger or frustration? Without access to the sensory information that is so much a part of the way we build relationships, electronic negotiations is very much like the blind leading the blind. It can be very hard to get a clear sense of what the other side is really feeling or thinking.

Another issue in electronic negotiations relates to the ways in which time becomes a factor. In a face to face or telephone negotiation, it is typical for the parties to commit to a time frame and a place to meet, with the intention of resolving several major issues all at one sitting, and perhaps even to complete the entire deal. In electronic negotiations, the pace is often much more relaxed. Discussion, proposal and bargaining slowly play out one message at a time, often with several hours or even several days between responses. One party may excuse his slow responses on the basis of being “in a meeting” or “on a call.” You have no way of knowing if that is true. It is just as likely that your latest offer was the subject of that meeting or call, and the other side is parsing every line of your offer, searching for weaknesses or looking for just the right tactic to counter your offer. All the while, you are left in the dark, wondering what is going on and what it all means.

Advantages in electronic negotiations

Of course, those obstacles can also become advantages when wisely played:

  • The lack of sensory information can help you protect your strategy and positions because the other side can’t read your tone of voice or body language.
  • The time delay provides you with the opportunity to carefully consider your next move, and to consult advisors if necessary, without telegraphing to the other side that you are experiencing a momentary lack of clarity or confusion.
  • The time delay also prevents you from over-reacting in high-pressure situations, especially if the other side has just implemented a surprise tactic that seems underhanded or threatening. You don’t have to – indeed you shouldn’t – react instantly in those cases. Instead you should take time to calm down, think through your options, consult advisors as needed, and then reply in a calm, professional manner that is soft on the people but firm on the issues.

Negotiation Quick Tip – Firm on the Issues; Soft on the People

The fastest way to blow up a negotiation is to let it get personal. Yes, sometimes people get emotional and sometimes they lose their perspective and make unreasonable requests. However, if you start to take things personally and push back against that person, it stops being a negotiation and becomes an argument. Soon accusations are flying and both sides dig into ridiculous positions and all is lost. The only defense against this is to resist the temptation to make it personal. Don’t accuse, don’t attack, don’t blame, don’t use sarcasm, and don’t engage in passive-aggressive tactics. Remain calm, professional and courteous with the other side, even while you remain firm on the issues. It is okay to advocate for your needs and only make or accept reasonable concessions; just don’t demean the other side in the process. If necessary, call for a recess and let people cool off a bit.


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