By Yvonne Milosevic
For some people, face-to-face negotiations were already tough enough. With no end to the pandemic in sight, it seems negotiating over Zoom may become the new normal. As we master various virtual technologies, Chicago Booth’s George Wu believes remote negotiation will become commonplace, even after the health threat subsides.
You might think in-person negotiations will always reign supreme. But are there times when negotiating over Zoom can actually be easier? Or better? When COVID-19 forced Wu to shift his Advanced Negotiations class online this spring, it provided the perfect opportunity to study what works better in person and where Zoom might offer unexpected benefits.
Here are a few of the advantages and drawbacks that Wu and his MBA students discovered in this new negotiating environment. We’ve added in some other tips to help you make the most of your Zoom negotiations.
First Big Hurdles
Problem: A fear of looking and sounding awkward over Zoom.
Solution: Record meetings for feedback purposes. Review and assess your performance.
Study your appearance and mannerisms. Do you seem engaged or distracted? Do you sometimes talk over the other participants? Are you following good Zoom etiquette? Think of these experiences as trial runs for a future negotiation, Wu says. Decide whether the image you project matches your intentions.
Problem: Getting flustered and staying resolute during negotiations.
Solution: Have a negotiation “script” on the screen to get you through challenging conversations.
Wu and his students thought that Zoom made it easier to be less emotional, more rational, and to stick with a plan. Often, people have difficulty being tough in negotiations, saying precisely the right words, Wu explains. No matter how much we’ve practiced, we get nervous and choke up in the moment. Try to read your notes in a natural-sounding way, as experienced people do with a teleprompter.
“Your desktop can be a form of preparation, and, in some ways, a crutch for you in negotiation that you ordinarily wouldn’t have,” Wu says.
A Second Serious Roadblock
Problem: How to build up rapport and trust—critical factors in negotiations—over Zoom.
Solution: Take concrete action to compensate for the natural deficiencies of this virtual medium.
In real life, you would ease into a negotiation with some friendly chitchat to break the ice. Yet our instinct is to get straight down to business when negotiating over Zoom. Don’t overlook the importance of building in time for small talk initially and to connect on a personal level.
We miss out on a lot of crucial body language online because we only see our counterpart’s upper torso. Most people don’t have their camera positioned at the right level, and they are often looking down. Both this lack of eye contact and visible body language makes it hard to create rapport.
The good news is you can minimize these two trust impediments. First, make a conscious effort to look straight at the camera lens. That’s the only way to appear like you’re maintaining eye contact—something Wu says he spent the whole quarter trying to get it right.
Second, sit a bit farther back from the screen to see more of your hand gestures and body position. This looks more natural and more like a face-to-face meeting in real life. Plus, you’ll convey a more personable image when your counterpart can get a glimpse of your home in the background.
No, You Cannot “Wing It”
Problem: Thinking virtual negotiations are inherently more casual.
Solution: Be just as strategic in your online negotiations as in person.
Negotiating over Zoom requires the same preparation and professionalism as in real life. Yes, you’re at home sitting in front of your computer. But that does not mean you should negotiate with a more cavalier attitude.
Before the meeting, discuss the goals with your team members. Figure out your limits and acceptable alternatives. Decide where you have some flexibility and what things could improve the agreement for you. Write down the information you need to give and get. If you will negotiate with a team, agree who will lead the meeting, make the summaries, and take notes.
Remember also that your colleagues still expect you to have a professional appearance. Dress for your video conference as you would for an in-person meeting.
And finally, as we come to terms with the place technologies such as Zoom will occupy in our future business negotiations, keep Professor Wu’s parting words in mind. He thinks that instead of focusing on its limitations, we need to figure out how to better leverage Zoom’s advantages. “I encourage people to think about this,” Wu says. “Imagine that Zoom is not only as good as face-to-face. But you are a better negotiator on Zoom than face-to-face.”