Negotiating techniques: negotiation in a virtual meeting


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In the changed business world we inhabit in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities for face to face business meetings have been much diminished.

Relationships are harder to build and maintain.  Deals and contracts continue and negotiations are needed to reach agreement but in these times we may have to move to some form of virtual meeting: a telephone conference, a meeting with documents available on a shared screen or even a video conference where you can watch the participants on your computer screen.  How to handle the new dynamics of such negotiations?

How to negotiate at all?  It's an art not a science and it is high art! The art of negotiation is a fascinating area and anyone who walks into a negotiation without preparing, planning and organising themselves or their team and just "wing it" is sure to lose out but a better prepared opposition unless they are very clever indeed.  Let's consider how the

dynamics change in a virtual meeting:

What's different in a virtual meeting?

1. Speech is everything

We lose clues from body language, facial expression, interest and observation both from the opposition and the support and intervention of our own team.  We cannot gain authority from our appearance, or the seating plan.  The difficulty of understanding people who are communicating in a language other than their mother tongue is increased.  We don’t know if people are smiling and laughing with us or scowling and laughing at us. It's possible to claim some of this back if there are a row of faces on a computer screen but these are often hard to see and easy to conceal. In most cases, using the view to see people is a better option and people should be encouraged to use their cameras.

We cannot so easily control our own team: once someone starts saying the wrong thing they are much harder to shut down than in a physical meeting.

2. Authority, favours earned and informal moments

The virtual meeting is a big leveller. There is no home team; no provision of snacks and drinks; no favours to be given and no light relief.  There are no informal moments to bond and curry favour. No meal together to follow the meeting and push advantages and soften up.  In a negotiation a good negotiator will impose their authority: it's much harder to do so when you are just one voice in 10 in on a crackly line.

Often good negotiators will gain concessions by making the other party like them and giving small favours.  It's much harder in a virtual environment.  Maybe, a personal call offline before or after the conference call is something a key member may think about.  Breaking the ice at the start of the meeting (particularly chat begun before everyone joins) can also build a bit of rapport.

3. Opportunities for hidden activity

It's very easy for someone without other's knowledge to: record the meeting; disappear; take separate calls or pretend to get separate calls; pass emails to their team commenting on the meeting in real time.  Extraneous noise might be unavoidable or it might be manufactured to annoy.  Calls breaking up may be a technical problem, or it might be a deliberate time out. It's a lot easier to play games and deceive.

Note that if you are intending to negotiate on a "without prejudice" basis, this concept may not be recognised in some jurisdictions.  Courts in the Middle East for example may be happy to allow evidence of a transcript of a virtual discussion.

4. Behaviour

Sometimes we talk about a "red face test".  That is, we are embarrassed to lie or ask for too much.  In a virtual meeting it is noticeable that people are less embarrassed by their behaviour. They may be more extreme; adopt a more bullying or hectoring style, or simply make ruder comments.  Constant interruption is of course irritating, as is speaking over people.  Timely interruptions need to be judged. 

5. Silence

Silence is a well-known negotiating technique.  It's easier to employ in a virtual meeting because a silence is less uncomfortable if no-one is looking at you. Consider this as a tactic. Don’t fill the void with something you regret later.
A word about the mute button: use it unless speaking and don’t forget it's on!  Extraneous noises at home can be embarrassing and annoying.

6. Concentration

You won't know who is following the meeting and who is doing something more interesting instead.  You cannot assume the expert you rely on in your team to intervene at the right moment will do so.

7. Decision Makers

Is there a decision maker on the call?  Do you want your decision maker to be unavailable to be consulted separately?  Maybe your decision maker needs to drop off to do something else before you are put on the spot? We have probably all been in the car showroom where the ingratiating salesman tells you he has to go off and call his manager for authority (and we all know he is going to an empty office for 5 minutes for a fantasy call). It's important to understand whether you are talking to the right people and whether you want to reserve the right to consult offline before confirming.  Hard messages are often delivered under the guise of being the decision of someone not in the room.

8. Break Outs and Time Outs

In a face to face meeting you may from time to time need to break out and meet in private with your own team.  In a virtual meeting, you may need to do the same.  Plan in advance.  It might be sensible to agree with only your own team to circulate in advance a dial in number for a telephone conference that only your team can join.  I understand that in some forums (Microsoft Teams for example) a break out room can be set up by the organiser.  I would be careful and would never agree to use a virtual break out to a facility set up by someone else.  Better to set your own and be sure of privacy.

9. Control of the Pen

You will always be in a better position if you control the documents both in terms of what you can show on the computer screen during the virtual meeting and in terms of the next version of the documents to be circulated following the meeting.  Don’t get bogged down in agreed "minutes of meeting" unless you have a very special need for these as part of your strategy, or you need to waste a lot of time.

Planning

A good negotiator will always ensure they know their objective(s) and their team has a plan to achieve those objectives; the whole team knows the plan and their roles in the plan.  This is much more important in a virtual meeting because the scope for someone going off on a tangent, or saying the wrong thing, is enhanced.

A plan includes preparing lines of argument.  You need to anticipate the points the other party will raise and be ready to run better arguments, or change perceptions and win, or not concede issues. It requires effort in advance, but it has to be flexible because the other party is not made of wood: they will move and change as well.

In a face to face meeting a good team will support one another.  It's much harder virtually.  Timing of supporting statements needs to be good and not come over as an interruption. A perfect supporter knows when to keep quiet and when to jump in to emphasise a point.  It's much harder virtually. 

Supporters who don’t know the plan are a menace.  They are harder to stop.  Put a plan in an email and have a pre-meeting with your team to rehearse the roles.

Time

Time is one of the most important and often ignored factors.  Who has time pressure? Usually one party has more of a time imperative than the other.  Use time.  We all know that if you want to close, it is good to put time pressure on the other party (limited availability of a sales offer and so on). On a call, manage the time of call and stick to it providing it suits your purpose. 

A good negotiator…

Be flexible, adapt, improvise, be clever!  Have an objective and a plan; make sure your team knows the plan; give everyone a role.
It’s an art not a science – no precise formula will achieve a precise result but preparation and organisation will gain you an advantage.


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