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Virtual Negotiating: Part 2

Simon Kelland
Considerations For Negotiating Virtually

In Part 1 the opportunities provided by virtual technologies were explored - conducting complex negotiations with participants spread around the world in many time zones, has become the new norm.  

Significant savings in travel time and expenses and minimum disruption to participants’ normal work and private life are worth celebrating. Benefits can be realised if we understand the limitations of virtual negotiating, and plan accordingly. 


Virtual is Especially Tiring  

I am reminded of the famous Irish Peace negotiations, known as the Good Friday Agreement, where the participants negotiated for 36 hours, only breaking for necessary food or toilet breaks. Imagine their mental state in the last hours of that negotiation! It would probably be similar to someone who had been negotiating virtually for three hours!

The reason is that the technology smooths out the rich signals the video and sound transmission. Unfortunately, participants’ brains do not know this, and they are constantly searching for those micro signals of facial expression and tone of voice they have been trained to search for. As a consequence - we fatigue quickly.  


The following guidelines for international virtual negotiating have been developed Scotwork’s negotiation consultants: 


  • Virtual negotiation sessions should be no longer than 2 hours with a 5-minute break at the one-hour mark; 
  • There should be no more than 2 x 2-hour sessions in a 24-hour period – timed to coincide with the beginning or end of the working day if working across widely separate time -zones (e.g. Aus/Europe or Aus/USA) so that in each 24-hour period each party gets a full working day between sessions to plan internally (while the other “side” is sleeping); 
  • Negotiation sessions should not occur on more than three days each week; and 
  • The video conferencing system used for conducting should be as high definition as possible and preferably with the ability to create virtual breakout rooms as well as screen and document sharing capability.


Communication Breakdown 

One of the most famous lines in American cinema is, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Given that most people are likely to over-estimate their communication skills, virtual negotiation presents some unique problems: 


  • Some of the non-verbal cues that can be easily picked up when face to face are more difficult to spot in virtual negotiations, and the brain gets fatigued more quickly because it has to work much harder to compensate.  
  • Striving for clarity of expression particularly in cross-cultural situations and eliminating slang and jargon takes energy.  
  • Pausing regularly and testing for understanding with the other party (e.g., “Does that make sense?” or “Is that clear?”) takes time and focus.  
  • Deliberately slow the pace of the negotiation to the natural comfort pace of yourself and the other party. 
  • Avoid humour unless you have an existing strong relationship with the other party. Attempts to be funny can easily be mis-interpreted and cause unnecessary friction. 
  • Use all the visual aids at your disposal - shared documents/spreadsheets/slides to support the verbal conversation and consider the use of aids such as a whiteboard (if your platform has it) to create visual artefacts summarising shared understanding. 


In summary, virtual negotiations offer both convenience and efficiency, but at a cost. If we acknowledge and plan to avoid the obvious costs, we can realise the significant benefits of virtual negotiations. 


For further information on how to successfully negotiate virtually, check out our Virtual Advancing Negotiation Skills program here. 


Happy negotiating!  


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