Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all become more accustomed to communicating virtually—so much so that the trade name “Zoom” is now being used as a verb. And while Zoom’s meteoric rise in popularity is inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual platforms are likely to remain popular even after in-person meetings resume.
When it comes to negotiations, the same fundamental principles apply whether you’re negotiating in person or on a virtual platform. The most applicable of these principles is “strategic preparation,” which considers the mode of communication most conducive to a positive result, given the situation at hand and the people involved.
Prior to 2020, where did you typically conduct your negotiations? In person? In virtual environments (with or without web cameras)? Or by telephone, email, text, or instant messenger? Perhaps a combination thereof?
Communicating on a virtual platform like Zoom is most comparable to meeting in person—conversations take place synchronously, with instant face-to-face visual and auditory feedback. These kinds of meetings can favour extroverts, unlike asynchronous modes like email or text, which allow for extended time between responses.
However, virtual meetings differ from in-person meetings in three key areas, and these areas present opportunities to maximize your negotiation skills:
1. The structure
Virtual meetings tend towards more structured conversation, with only one person speaking at a time. The challenge here is that participants lose out on full body language cues, which can create anxiety and opportunities for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and false assumptions.
Your opportunity here is to set clear expectations and frame your intention for the negotiation in advance. Share your expectations and a proposed agenda via email ahead of time. Let participants know that the process may require several virtual meetings, especially if you know you’ll need to consult someone else or consider agenda items as a team.
2. The environment
Unlike in-person meetings where everyone attending shares the same overall physical environment, each camera square on Zoom is its own individual environment.
If you haven’t yet given any thought to creating an environment conducive to achieving your strategic outcomes, today is the day to begin! In person, you can choose the lighting, the seating arrangement, the size of the table, the temperature, etc. You have a variety of options on virtual platforms as well—such as the background (real or virtual) and your camera and lighting setup. So give some thought to the environment you want to create.
And if you’re negotiating as a team, consider whether each team member will appear on their own web camera or whether you’ll be together in the same room using one camera (when this becomes possible). In the latter scenario, also consider whether you’ll position the camera to show everyone or just the speaker, and find out if the other party will do the same.
3. Security and privacy
In-person negotiations offer physical checks on privacy and confidentiality, including a closed door. While it’s true that an unscrupulous person may attempt to surreptitiously record a negotiation under the table, the risks of security and privacy breaches are greater in a virtual environment. In fact, many of the features now offered on Zoom were created after private meetings were hacked.
Surprises after the fact can break trust and have a long-lasting negative impact on business relationships, so it’s important to discuss protocols beforehand. As with in-person meetings, this includes addressing any security or privacy needs prior to reaching the core part of your negotiation. For example, you might want to set clear expectations regarding the number of participants, determine whether everyone will have their video turned on during negotiations, and seek assurances that no one else can overhear or record any part of the discussion.
In addition, be sure to agree to any technology protocols in advance. For example, discuss how you’ll share documents and gain signatures to any agreements. Technology offers a lot of choices to achieve your objectives, so take care to choose the platform and tools that will best meet your expectations.
One of the keys to any successful negotiation is to choose your mode of communication carefully. Even if you only started using virtual meeting platforms out of necessity, consider keeping them as an option for the future. And whenever you do choose to negotiate virtually, be sure you’re adapting to and leveraging the technology to increase the odds of a successful result.
Carrie Gallant is an expert in the art and science of negotiation, influence, and conflict resolution and the founder of The Gallant Leader™ Institute and the EARN Your Worth™ Leaders Lab. She is a speaker, facilitator, and pay equity advocate who specializes in helping clients find their voice and power in negotiations. For more insights, check out Carrie’s blog The Gallant Leader.