Eight things to know about the art of virtual negotiation

After nearly a year of working through a pandemic, many of us might consider ourselves experts in the online platforms we use in our business.

Whether Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp or just plain old email, we effortlessly move back and forth between them, whether it be to manage teams remotely, develop strategy, negotiate deals with customers or trade agreements with governments. But are we as good as we think we are?

It’s my belief that when it comes to negotiating virtually, we still have a long way to go in replicating as successfully online the deals we achieve in person. Many of us are still struggling to understand that the way messages are delivered and received online can be very different.

The good news is that negotiating successfully online is highly attainable, which is why we are devoting a whole module to this crucial area, including simulations, in our next virtual Oxford Programme on Negotiation. Here are eight top tips for being a successful online negotiator:

1. Focus on relationships

Successful negotiations are built on relationships characterised by trust and respect, so don’t think that just because you are negotiating online you can take shortcuts on relationship building. Find out about your counterparts and what you have in common and devote time to getting to know each other.

2. Have strong emotional antennae

One of the challenges in negotiating online is that you miss those non-verbal signals when someone is getting frustrated, anxious, angry or showing other emotions. Be a model of clear communication, regularly check in on your counterpart and don’t let emotions escalate unaddressed on either side.

3. Never forget context

Negotiations don’t take place in a vacuum and that’s very much the case online too (although it’s easy to forget). So keep in mind time zones for your counterparts, religious holidays, weekends (weekends in the Middle East tend to be Friday and Saturday) and much more when you negotiate online.

4. Establish an online process

Process is vital in all negotiations. It’s your friend, it helps structure negotiations and can keep things on an even keel if things get tough. Process is even more important when you are negotiating at a distance. What platform are you going to use? How long will meetings be? (Remember that you typically get about 75% of a person’s attention in an online meeting). What issues will be covered and in what order? Are we working to a deadline in the negotiation? Ask these questions and more and agree on the answers with your counterpart.

5. Be clear

It’s easy sometimes to get lost in online negotiations as to what issues have been agreed upon, or what to cover next. Clarity is essential at every stage of an online negotiation so be sure to signpost where you go, regularly summarise and track progress, and back up what has been discussed or agreed on a Zoom call, for example, with a follow-up email.

6. Be comfortable with silence

People don’t like silence at the best of times but particularly online. Yet if you’re too keen to fill those gaps, you can often give away more information than you intend to or make needless concessions. Silence helps you control an online negotiation, giving you more time to think and strategise and change the trajectory of discussions if need be.

7. Use the platform that works best for you

Many people ask me what the most effective virtual platform for negotiations is - Zoom, Teams, even WhatsApp. As is often the case in negotiation, there’s no clear-cut answer, with each having its benefits. Email, for example, is ideal for the more introverted, measured person and can help reframe issues or negotiation parameters. Lengthy negotiations with large teams or where there is a need to generate greater momentum might work better on a video call. And instant updates where there is already a relationship lend themselves to text (SMS) or WhatsApp. The key is to focus on what you and your counterpart feel most comfortable with. It’s fine to go back and forth between different platforms, with email being a key tool for cementing agreements and sharing documents.

8. Be creative and don’t give up

Make sure that you don’t leave creativity at the door when it comes to online negotiations. The give and take of online discussions where you tend to react to what has just been said in a linear way doesn’t always lend itself to creativity, different approaches or the bringing of more issues to the table. In such cases, creative brainstorming and online collaboration tools, such as Mural or Miro, can be really useful.

And finally, work just as hard to get a deal as if you’d jumped on a plane and gone half-way round the world. While it might be easier to simply end a video call than it is to hail a taxi to the airport and embark on the long trip home, the upside of any deal remains the same, online or in person. 

In the current and post-Covid world, virtual negotiations are going to become ever more prevalent. Follow these principles and you can make sure you are a great negotiator in all contexts and on all platforms.

The virtual Oxford Programme on Negotiation takes place for three weeks from 5 March 2021 and includes a module and a new negotiation simulation written by our faculty specifically for negotiating virtually. Find out more about the programme.