COVID-19: should I negotiate via video-link?

Should you negotiate with counterparts when working remotely as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic? Leonore Dupont details best practice for doing so and the potential pitfalls to avoid.

30 March 2020

The global health crisis caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted and will continue to impact more and more people’s lives worldwide as restrictions to our usual freedoms mount up in the interests of protecting the general public. 

From a business perspective, if you are able to continue to work remotely, this brave new world is testing us all on a personal and professional level. Our daily challenges cover everything from the practical issues – how to work with children running all around us, or manage our businesses’ IT and financial systems to withstand the pressures of full remote working – to the more nebulous (although no less important) concerns, such as how to keep teams engaged remotely. You may also have found yourself wondering whether you should negotiate with counterparts remotely. You may be trying to close a new deal, address the impact of COVID-19 on a pre-existing contract or resolve the fall-out from any other issue. Can you do this via a video-link, and if so, how best to do this?

What are the pros and cons of negotiating via a video-link?

Video conferencing is widely seen as a ‘rich’ medium since it allows you to pick up on both verbal and non-verbal communication cues (e.g. hand gestures, frowns and changes in vocal tone) to build a rapport. Added to that, most video conferencing facilitates the sharing of documents, screens or other information as well. The final advantage that video conferencing normally offers is a saving in both time and money.

However, there are some distinct limitations when negotiating via a video-link that is not experienced when conducting a negotiation face-to-face. In particular:

1. Limited vision

This one is likely to be familiar to anyone who has ever used Skype or WhatsApp for calls. The video function will only display a ‘talking head’, which means that you sometimes can’t really be sure if your counterpart is focused, mulling something over or distracted by something happening off-screen. It also means that you may not see every gesture that is made, unless the people attending the video conference make the effort to ensure that their hand gestures are visible on screen. Most important, however, is the lack of eye contact. It is difficult, if not impossible to ensure eye contact via video-links since it is not possible to watch the on-screen action whilst at the same time gazing fixedly into the camera. This is perhaps one of the biggest limiting factors to video negotiations since it is harder to build a sense of ‘sincerity’ and ‘rapport’. 

2. Privacy and security issues

Whilst it is possible to secretly record any negotiation, including face to face encounters, the use of a video conferencing system makes it that much easier to do. This is a factor to consider if your negotiation is in any way commercially sensitive or private. However, the more practical privacy issue is the inability to tell whether there is anyone off-screen listening in or advising the negotiator. If this individual is a ‘key-decision maker’, it would be preferable to know of his/her involvement, and even better, their reactions to any negotiating position being discussed. For this reason, if security is a critical issue and your trust in the other party is low, it may be advisable to consider alternative negotiation methods.

3. Heightened self-awareness 

Unlike in face-to-face meetings, when negotiating via a video-link you have a moving image of your own face in front of you. For most people, seeing your own image can prove very distracting. The psychological impact of this feature is not yet well researched. The obvious implications range from being overly concerned about how you appear, meaning you either fail to pay enough attention to the reactions of your counterpart or come across as ‘stiff’ and/or ‘unnatural’, to being constantly reminded of the stereotypical visual differences that may exist between yourself and your counterpart such as gender, race, age etc. Luckily, the solution to this – once you have established that you are centred correctly in front of your camera – is to hide or minimise your own video image. You can also attempt to reduce any visual stereotype influences by attempting to build an informal connection in advance of any negotiation.

4. Technical difficulties

We have likely all experienced the frustration that comes with video-links not working, whether that’s frozen or pixelated video feeds, broken audio feeds or screen sharing not working. The problem with this is that, even if you manage to get the video-link working again, it is very difficult to negotiate at your best when you are frustrated or annoyed. This is likely to come across no matter how many deep breaths you take. The only solution is to try to minimise the risk of technical issues in advance, and if they arise anyway, weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of taking a short break for both parties to re-calibrate, or re-schedule the negotiation for another day if that is possible.

How do I prepare for a video-link negotiation?

Having decided that negotiating via a video-link is your preferred approach (or the best available option!), there are a couple of simple tricks to consider. 

The starting point

Ensure that the basics are in place: any technical issues have been checked and ironed out, and you have done your best to ensure that you have a calm, quiet and professional environment to negotiate in. Appearances will still matter on a video-link negotiation. For example, avoid only ‘half dressing’, as you never know when you may have to stand up! As an added bonus, full ‘suiting and booting’ will help you get into the correct frame of mind. 

Do your homework

Second, do your homework the same way you would for any face-to-face negotiation. Map out the parties to the negotiation, their backgrounds, priorities and motivations. Consider what each party’s perspective will be and what is likely to influence or drive their behaviour, and assess the negotiating strategies that are likely to be effective and where your leverage lies. 

Consider carefully whether you need to first negotiate the ‘process’ that will apply before you get to the substance of the deal. This can avoid any nasty surprises that may derail an otherwise successful negotiation. For example, do you wish to have an agenda? Which issues should be at the top of that agenda? Who will speak first? Do you wish to have set time-frames and set breaks? Who are the negotiators and what is their authority to seal the deal? How is any written agreement to be prepared and by whom? How is the final document to be signed off and when? 

Final preparation

Think about how you will ‘normalise’ the video-negotiation. There are various techniques for doing this, including each party being up-front about their expectations and desired outcomes. You could also consider whether any cultural pre-negotiation rituals should be adhered to remotely. Additionally, you can encourage each attendee to give a quick virtual ‘tour’ of their surroundings and to detail any potential unexpected distractions or background noises, for example children crying or playing loudly that might impact upon an important negotiation (particularly when working in COVID-19 lockdown). Another option is to encourage a few minutes of ‘ice-breaker’ chat to find common ground. 

Before the negotiation kicks off, consider having a ‘trial run’ with a trusted colleague providing feedback to improve your awareness of how your personal habits and gestures come across on-screen. Body language is important in any negotiation; however, a video-link can over-exaggerate habits that may otherwise pass unnoticed at an in-person meeting. For example, face-touching or pen-clicking can come across as nervous or impatient respectively. Instead, try to remember to nod your head periodically and smile slightly as this tends to communicate that you are listening attentively and taking on board the points being made. 

Once you are aware of your personal habits and gestures, you might consider hiding or minimising your own video image during the negotiation (after you have ensured that you are visible!) so that ‘heightened self-awareness’ does not distract you during the negotiation. 

Finally, where appropriate, consider asking open-ended questions to start off with, and carefully note facial expressions and gestures so that you can familiarise yourself with each party’s non-verbal communication style and how to interpret it as the negotiation progresses.