The disruptive effect of the pandemic hit many businesses hard. To survive and succeed, executives worldwide have had to adapt fast and learn the new communication rules of remote working.
Due to COVID-19, the use of virtual meeting platforms has skyrocketed, with hundreds of millions of businesses moving to meetings, conferences and deal-making online. More than 45 billion hours are spent in online meetings via Zoom alone during 2020. As a result, the way we handle business dealings has changed and online communication is transforming the way we negotiate.
Negotiations make many of us wary, with less than 40% of employees showing a willingness to negotiate, according to a 2018 survey. The reasons for avoiding negotiations vary. The most common concerns include the fear of ruining a relationship, the fear of negative repercussions, such as being viewed as overly assertive or coming out of any negotiation with a winner and a loser. Many even associate negotiation with conflict.
These fears, while still present, have been somewhat superseded by new fears that have developed due to the very nature of video calls.
One new concern is the ability to build a good relationship online. In negotiation, finding a mutually beneficial solution is linked to how much trust and rapport exist between the negotiation parties. So the critical question is, how to establish this rapport online?
Another concern is how well one can read the emotions and interpret the body language of the other side over video. When executives negotiate in person, they can do such things as pick up on body language, make firm eye contact and listen to the tone of voice to gauge interest or disinterest. These abilities disappear in video meetings and are replaced by video buffering, blurry screens, and delayed voice interactions.
What’s more, it has been confirmed by research that information exchanged over electronic media is less likely to be accurate, with bluffs and threats increasing digitally.
Finally, what are the new norms? Since most of the negotiations took place face-to-face in the past, there is no established framework for a digital negotiation.
It is more important than ever to approach each virtual negotiation with confidence and a sense of adaptability to the new normal.
Digital negotiations come with their own set of benefits, including easier logistics, less time wasted and the ability to use ever-evolving digital tools of collaboration and communication that are designed to make some of our work more efficient but also more enjoyable. Here are six tips for scoring online negotiations in the new normal of video meetings.
1. Focus on relationship
If you asked me to give only one negotiation piece of advice, it would always be to focus on people and building relationships. You can’t go wrong with this. In a virtual negotiation, it becomes twice as important. However, because people on the video call feel stressed and uncertain about the rules of engagement, this part of the communication is often skipped.
Don’t rush if you want to increase the chances of finding a mutual understanding. Slow down the business talk, get the participants to talk about themselves to get a better sense of who they are and what mood they are in. Try to find common grounds, common interests and connections.
In a recent video negotiation I participated in, the facilitator started by reminding everyone how both companies interacted in the past, who had met who face to face and when. It sparked a conversation, and one participant discovered that he knew some of the other participants since their business school days. A little chat about the different universities people attended helped break the ice.
2. Adapt to virtual body language
Usually, most people look at their computer screen, as this is where the other meeting participants can be seen. As the eyes of the users are not focused on the camera, it can bring a sense of disconnect to the virtual interaction. So you need to ensure that you look into the camera of your computer to make direct eye contact with your counterpart. This will help project the confidence you have when making strong in-person eye contact.
Secondly, sit further away from your computer screen so that more of your body appears. Tight close-ups are not only uncomfortable; they can also take away a lot of the meaning you may be trying to express with your body language.
I also used to advise not to look at oneself during a video call until the day I participated in a video meeting that changed my recommendation. A while back, I joined a group of consultants to pitch our collective services over Zoom to a large European company. The main speaker was a colleague of mine who had very obviously been enjoying a nice latte coffee before the meeting. A drop of milk was still on his face when he joined the video meeting.
I texted to alert him, but he didn’t look at his phone. He didn’t look at himself in the camera either, so he had no clue.Today we are still laughing about the “milk-pitch”, but it is always good to check your look in the camera to avoid a similar scenario.
3. Rehearse, practise and use a teleprompter
What if you are about to negotiate something very important that makes you feel stressed? It might be that you need to make a pitch for the first time or you are about to ask for a salary raise. The best way to do that is to record practice sessions for you to review and receive feedback on.
Fortunately, Zoom and other video meeting platforms have a recording feature for you to look back on and analyse your facial expressions, body language and engagement with the camera. It can also be beneficial to perform a practice session with a colleague so that you can master appropriate physical and verbal communication (and receive feedback).
4. Think of the obvious
A well-known saying urges people to “not judge a book by its cover.” But people tend to do so, even over Zoom calls. All non-verbal communication signs are amplified over a video call. Research shows that what we wear, including what colours of clothing we choose, can affect both how we perform and how others see us; in fact, 96% of people reported that they experienced a change in their emotional state with a change in how they dressed.
Dress casually, and you may end up treating the negotiation too casually. Instead, dress as you would if the negotiation was in-person, and you will set your mind to be more focused, confident and professional.
Similarly, it is important to put some real thought into your background in video calls. Your background can set up the mood of the meeting. If you want to focus on building relationships, choose soothing and relaxing colours, for example, a room with green plants or books. If you want to emphasise the importance of the meeting or your status, choose something more corporate and formal.
Your home background will create an atmosphere of intimacy, which might play well during more personal negotiations. Bookshelves are always a winner because they serve all purposes. Finally, you can also choose to go for a very corporate background with your company’s logo or a blurry background.
Okay, I lied. Here is one more tried and true tip that works for any negotiation.
5. Remember that preparation is key
Same as with in-person negotiations, you will increase your chances of success if you enter a virtual negotiation well prepared. This means arriving prepared with an understanding of the other parties’ interests and with a plan for how you will drive a win-win negotiation rather than a win-lose outcome. Take notes while you do your research and preparation. You can pull these notes up more easily during a video meeting on your computer.
Yes, negotiation may look completely different in the world of virtual meetings, but they can deliver plenty of advantages. It saves you time as you don’t need to travel to the other side of the city or the world just for that one important meeting.
You can prepare better and use tools such as teleprompters and screen sharing to support you. Practice building relationships in the video world, and it will pay back long-term dividends. And as the world-famous theatre director Constantin Stanislavsky once said, “Play well, play badly, but play truly“.