The Negotiator Magazine

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CONDUCTING ELECTRONIC NEGOTIATIONS

by Charles B. Craver

Computers have made it efficient and practical to conduct bargaining interactions electronically. Parties introduce themselves through e-mail exchanges, and send bargaining proposals back and forth as attached electronic files. This is an especially economical way to deal with parties located in other states or in other countries. Before individuals become overly enamored with electronic negotiating, however, some cautionary considerations should be appreciated.

Bargaining involves personal interactions. It is difficult to have good personal interactions conducted entirely in writing. It is so much easier to establish critical rapport through in-person or telephone exchanges during which the parties talk directly to one another. Professors Leigh Thompson and Janice Nadler of Northwestern University have conducted several interesting studies in this regard. They divided students into pairs and instructed them to conduct negotiation exercises entirely through e-mail exchanges. Half of the participants were given a five-minute schmoozing telephone call during which they could discuss their personal lives, their school experiences, and similar topics. They could not talk about their negotiation exercise. When negotiators who got the preliminary schmoozing phone call worked on their exercises through e-mail exchanges, they behaved more cooperatively, reached more agreements, and achieved more efficient arrangements than the participants who had no preliminary phone calls.

It is thus important for persons who plan to conduct their negotiations through e-mail exchanges to take a few minutes to telephone each other in an effort to get to know one another and establish some rapport. This is especially important with respect to parties who do not have on-going relationships. Once they have taken the time to talk personally, they can begin to exchange electronic proposals. They must also appreciate the fact that when individuals receive written proposals, they tend to read them carefully, and they often read too much or too little into specific terms. They assume that the senderís proposals are self-serving and somewhat manipulative, even when this is not true. They may thus interpret fair proposals as unfair, and respond accordingly. They may quickly escalate the battle and generate a similar response from the offended original sender. To avoid this phenomenon, proposal senders should telephone the proposal recipients several days after their e-mail messages were sent to hear their responses. Ask them if they have any comments or questions. They may not like particular language that is actually innocuous. If they suggest substitute language conveying the same message, a quick substitution of their language for the original terminology can be disarming. It they are truly upset about a particular provision, the parties can directly discuss their disagreement. They may be able to work out an acceptable compromise. Even if they cannot do so, however, by discussing the term directly with one another they diminish the likelihood their disagreement will generate insurmountable obstacles to a final accord.

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June 2007