the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School(www.pon.harvard.edu)
These days, it seems many negotiators have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We love the convenience and low cost, yet we've had unpleasant experiences that make us want to hurl our computers or PDAs across the room.
The good news is that e-mail has the potential to contribute to beneficial agreements rather than undermining them, especially when combined with face-to-face meetings and phone calls. In this article, we describe three problems that often arise in e-mail exchanges and show you how to address them.
Problem No. 1: E-mail leads to subpar outcomes.
Relative to face-to-face talks, negotiations conducted via e-mail can lead to less creative and less satisfying agreements, a number of research studies have found. E-mail negotiations also appear to end in impasse more often than in-person negotiations.
E-mail messages lack the visual and vocal cues we depend on when hashing out a deal in person. The "mutual invisibility" of e-mail can cause us to become self-absorbed and overly self-interested, traits that can prevent negotiators from exploring each other's interests and building a better deal, attorney and mediator Noam Ebner and his colleagues write in their chapter of the book "Rethinking Negotiation Teaching: Innovations for Context and Culture."
In addition, e-mail negotiations often move at an unpredictable pace, since people can respond (or not respond) when they like. In group negotiations, those who check their e-mail most frequently can end up controlling the discussion. Those who never have a chance to contribute may choose not to abide by the agreement, to the detriment of the group.
What to do? When facing an important e-mail negotiation with someone you've never met, do whatever you can to meet in person beforehand -- or, if that isn't possible, talk on the phone -- with the goal of building rapport. In her research, Professor Janice Nadler of Northwestern University found that when pairs of participants engaged in a short, informal phone call prior to negotiating the hypothetical sale of a car, they were four times more likely to reach an agreement than pairs who didn't have the chance to "schmooze" in advance. Even a little friendly banter at the start of an e-mail message can help negotiators work together more creatively.
You should also set ground rules for your e-mail negotiations. If consensus is a worthy goal for your group, you might agree to wait 24 or 48 hours for everyone to have time to weigh in on a decision. When finalizing an agreement, arrange a conference call or a face-to-face meeting to make sure everyone is on board.
Problem No. 2: E-mail fosters contention and mistrust.
E-mail negotiations have the potential to be more contentious and hostile than face-to-face meetings. Why? We tend to feel less inhibited when hidden behind a computer screen.
Negotiators also trust each other less when they meet online rather than in person, again because e-mail messages lack the social cues, eye contact and warmth that people share when they're gathered in the same room.
Mistrust can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in e-mail negotiations, note Ebner and colleagues.
What to do? Just as talking in person or picking up the phone can improve cooperation, it can also reduce contention and mistrust.
You can also try to manage anxiety online by sending updates on your progress and by asking questions aimed at drawing out the other party's concerns. Finally, advise Ebner and his team, don't reject an offer submitted via e-mail immediately; show respect for your counterpart by taking time to think it through.
Problem No. 3: E-mail leads to misunderstandings.
The fact that we can dash off e-mail messages in seconds means that we often convey information sloppily and incompletely online. In a recent New York Times article, a real estate agent admitted that her misreading of a client's e-mail caused her to up the client's previous bid on an apartment by $5,000 rather than lowering it by the same amount, as the client had intended.
What to do? Just because writing an e-mail can be an effortless process doesn't mean it should be. Draft your messages carefully; after all, you're creating a permanent written record that could be used against you later. Take time to read the messages you receive from your counterparts carefully, too.
In fact, e-mail offers negotiators an excellent opportunity to organize and prioritize their thoughts -- perhaps lending e-mail one distinct advantage over in-person meetings. In an e-mail message, you can bundle together a number of different issues and packages to present to your counterpart, note Ebner and his colleagues.
Finally, if you're completely flummoxed by a message from your counterpart, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.
In sum, e-mail can be a useful supplement to face-to-face negotiations when busy parties are located far apart. But to make sure you fully understand each other, never underestimate the importance of picking up the phone or going the extra mile to meet in person.