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Negotiating via Email
Editors’ Note: Email is typically the first technology people think of when they start to imagine negotiating using a computer. By now, this is a common practice, at least for parts and phases of a typical negotiation. Yet few practitioners or students pause to consider how the technology affects what is said, how it is said, and when and how it is heard. Reviewing what is now a substantial body of research, the author finds seven major challenges in negotiating via e-mail, most of which are as yet poorly understood. He goes on to provide practical advice on each one.
Negotiation interactions are increasingly taking place through channels other than face-to-face encounters. Negotiators find themselves communicating with each other online, using a variety of e-communication channels. This chapter will deal with one particular medium that, given its ubiquitous use across professional as well as personal contexts, warrants special attention: negotiation via email. Once a seemingly static mode of communication, email has, of late, become a moving target, with changes in its software, hardware, and modes of use. This chapter aims to provide a roadmap for negotiating via email. [Other applications of technology to support negotiation are discussed in NDR: Ebner, Texting, NDR: Ebner, Videoconferencing and NDR: Ebner, Other Technologies. Ethical issues raised in these processes are discussed in NDR: Rule, Online Ethics]
Negotiation—All Around, and Online Too
Given the broad definition granted to the term “negotiation” in this field’s literature, and the many types of interactions and relationships we now conduct online, many of us are often engaged in online negotiation. This is especially true in the business world. Two lawyers email offers and counteroffers late into the night as they attempt to settle a case before a court hearing; a purchaser in New York emails her Australian supplier, requesting a discount; a landlady informs her tenant of a rent increase, should he be interested in extending his lease; a team leader sends out a group message asking his team to work longer hours. All are engaging in negotiating via email. Does this choice of medium matter?
Email Negotiation is Unavoidable—and Very Different
As opposed to several years ago, when students and clients would regularly inform me that they would never negotiate anything important by email, today this statement is rarely voiced, and with good reason. In today’s world, we cannot avoid finding negotiation messages in our inbox even if we wanted to—so we need to understand this mode of negotiation, and learn how to conduct it well. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of this chapter. [Further thoughts on when to prefer email for negotiation, or on how to fit email communication in amongst an array of channels used in a negotiation can be found in NDR: Schneider & McCarthy, C0mmunication Choices.]
Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of email negotiation, though, we need to lay two pieces of groundwork. The first is an understanding of the effects that different communication media have on the content and dynamics of communication conducted through them, known as “media effects”. The second is an investigation into just what type of communication medium email is, in order to put those effects into context.
The Medium Affects the Message: A Theoretical Model
The communication channel through which negotiations are conducted is neither passive nor neutral; it affects what information negotiators share, and how that information is conveyed, received and interpreted (Carnevale and Probst 1997; Friedman and Currall 2003).
Intuitively, we know that some information is easier to communicate face-to-face, whereas other messages might be hampered by a face-to-face setting and would be better off written in an email. Similarly, we might respond to a message one way in a face-to-face setting—and completely differently when reading it in an email. What underlies these differences? Zoe Barsness and Anita Bhappu (2004) ascribe them to the effects of two dimensions of communication media: ....
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