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Virtual Negotiating: Part 1

Simon Kelland
Virtual Negotiating Part 1

In 1865 the UK passed the red flag act whereby locomotives had to be preceded by a person displaying a red flag to warn oncoming horse and pedestrian traffic of the arrival of a horseless carriage. Unfortunately, in our current world, the rapid adoption of new technologies does not have the equivalent of a red flag.  


The Jennifer Zoom fail is an early example of achieving internet fame for the wrong reason. No-one had (red-flagged) alerted Jennifer of the traps of losing concentration; of turning the computer camera off when undertaking personal stuff, like taking a toilet break! 


Like most step changes, the move to online communication and negotiation contains both opportunities for innovation and improvement, but also significant downside risks if the challenges in harnessing the new technologies are not understood. The other great change wrought by the pandemic; work from home, has evolved from a temporary measure to reduce the spread of Covid, to a permanent feature of contemporary work for many. We are playing ‘catch-up’ with work from home in harvesting the benefits while mitigating the disadvantages. We need to follow a similar process with virtual negotiating. 


It is fortuitous that the technologies that enable virtual negotiating were mostly available before the pandemic. As a keen observer of human interaction, I had often commented that these technologies were no substitute for face-to-face meetings and that domestic and international business travel continued to grow in spite of the development of virtual meeting platforms. This time is different as the cost, inconvenience and risk of travel have been magnified post pandemic and online negotiating is here to stay. 


An example of the complexity in the global economy was the stranding of a major capital asset in Australia after a change to planning laws. The weekly cost was in the millions of dollars and the delay was going to be months. An urgent negotiation was convened between the asset owners in the Netherlands, the operating company in Texas, the Australian lessor in Perth and lawyers in London and New York. Imagine the complexity of coordinating travel and logistics to get all the parties in the same room at the same time! A virtual negotiation was the only feasible option, given the way costs were mounting. 


The key to understanding virtual negotiations is that it is a magnifier of behaviour. It will reward good behaviour and similarly punish bad negotiating behaviour. Given that skilled negotiation is a learned discipline, that discipline is even more essential online. Hal Movius in his HBR article How to Negotiate Virtually highlights some of the dangers.  



The military aphorism that, “Time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted,” particularly applies to virtual negotiations. As I often say, people prefer to negotiate with people they know, so they always spend time researching the other team: their background, hobbies and interests. Start the negotiation with an exchange of personal information. Be prepared to show leadership and trust by being the first to disclose personal information. Try, “Tell us something about yourself that few people know…” 



Practice with the technology and make sure your entire team is familiar with the application. Have somebody in the team as the troubleshooter who can help both teams if problems occur. I have experienced counter parties disappear and not return for extended periods. Talk through the technology and any possible issues with the counterparty before you commence negotiating. I have the acute embarrassment of leaving a negotiation room and being lost in the ether, seemingly for eternity, before finding someone to let me back in. 



Limit the number of those who can make a contribution. Allocate specific tasks to each team member. At Scotwork we advocate three specialist tasks: leader, summariser and observer. Other team members may be present for specific technical advice and must limit their involvement. In a recent complex procurement, we had 23 people with an interest in the outcome! 


Privacy and Security 

One of the dangers of virtual negotiating is the possibility of security breaches and secret recordings being made of proceedings. These protocols need to be addressed before any negotiation commences. 


Note Taking and Sharing 

This is a significant advantage for key observations and perhaps advice to be shared with the leader. Keep them brief and impersonal; there’s no place for jokes and disparaging comments about the other party. Given the tendency to be more aggressive online, these can destroy deals and relationships. Remember anything they write down may be accidentally broadcast or later discovered.  


In Part 2 of this blog, advice on how to best harness available technologies for future virtual negotiations will be outlined – check back next week!  


For further information on how to successfully negotiate virtually or in person, check out our Virtual or In-Person Advancing Negotiation Skills program here 


Happy negotiating! 

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