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How to Negotiate Over Email

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Dear Negotiators,

I’m in corporate communications, where I’m often trying to sway others in the company about appropriate word choice for publications or specific messaging in speeches, and in both cases the details are key.

I feel confident in my negotiation capabilities when I’m speaking one-on-one and in person. But via email, I find it harder to incorporate some of those connection points without seeming trite, especially when the issues are complex.

Unfortunately, many of the individuals I’m negotiating with are executives with little available time to meet in person or by phone. It’s also hard to get multiple players on the phone at once, and we need a written record of our decisions to rely on going forward.

I thought you might have some pointers for these kinds of interactions and how I can best approach the discussion.

Perplexed Corporate Communicator

Dear Perplexed,

It’s been 20 years since business people began to use email, and we still haven’t figured out a way to avoid most of the trouble it causes.

According to Dr. Randi Gunther, a Southern California clinical psychologist, we risk miscommunicating with one another if we fail to use any one of the five modes of communication: words, tone of voice, touch, posture, and facial expressions.

When talking on the telephone, we adjust what we say not simply in response to the spoken words, but also to the tone with which those words are delivered. Is our business associate demanding and harsh, insistent and directive, cold or warm, doubtful or certain, casual or formal? We more or less naturally adjust our own tone to match the other person’s or to lower it if its temperature seems too high for collaborative problem solving.

But even the telephone misses the full expression of our ideas. When we talk on the phone, we miss body language and facial expressions, both of which can convey doubt when we’re stressing our certainty, resistance when we’re claiming compliance, or humor when we’re avoiding conflict.

Add to these deficits our mutual ignorance of the context in which each party is communicating, and you have what Professor Raymond A. Freidman at the Owen Graduate School of Management calls a “profoundly asocial conversation.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that “words alone” are capable of communicating context and tone as well as empathy, passion, curiosity, and doubt. Were it not so, we wouldn’t have cried when our parents read us Bambi, wouldn’t feel angry when we read about the most recent ethnic cleansing, and wouldn’t laugh while reading a humorous column in our Facebook feed. It just takes a little more care.

Here are just a few of the ways we can add the appropriate tone, texture, context, and emotion to negotiations conducted by email—with a sample script that you can adapt to fit your own situation.

1. Set the Stage and Bring Feeling Into the Conversation

Dear Sandra,

I just returned from medical leave (a tough assignment or a pleasant weekend with my family). It feels good to be in the office again even though my inbox is overflowing.

2. Express Empathy While Taking Your Bargaining Partners’ Pulse

I assume you’re buried with work since Larry left the firm (or you were appointed to the management committee). Still, I wanted to get back to you as soon a possible about the messaging issue we talked about (last week or before I went on vacation).

I don’t want to add to your burdens but was hoping we might find time to chat briefly about the major issues we have yet to resolve. If that’s not possible, we can certainly try to come to a final decision via email.

3. Mention the Feelings That Business Communications Usually Lack

I’ve been struggling to find a way that helps both of us achieve our goals. Frankly, I’m feeling a bit frustrated by my own failure to articulate my viewpoint in a more compelling way. You may be feeling similarly vexed by our lack of progress.

4. Stress Your Confidence That You Can Find a Solution That Pleases You Both

I’m pretty sure there are an infinite number of ways to skin this particular cat. I don’t doubt we can do again what we’ve always managed to do before—satisfy both our needs (desires, preferences, priorities)—if we spend enough time brainstorming the issues.

5. Make Suggestions, Ask Questions, and Include More Details to Draw Your Bargaining Partner Into Problem-Solving Mode

I’m attaching a memo that includes possible solutions suggested by your team and mine, as well as a couple of new possibilities I’d like you to consider. If I’ve left anything off this list, please let me know. I don’t want you to think that I’m unwilling to consider one or more of your concerns.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Mention Your Own Doubt

Although I continue to believe in my proposals, I’m certainly willing to talk about the flaws you see in them and reconsider the solutions you suggested when last we spoke.

7. Close by Stressing a High Degree of Confidence in Your Ability to Find a Mutually Beneficial Solution

I continue to respect your commitment to producing the best work in the industry and our ability to create the best messaging campaign to get that work into our customer’s hands.

In short, bring as much of your own personality, tempered emotion, respect for your negotiation partner, and optimism about your ability to reach agreement as you can. The more you mimic “real life” conversation in an email, the less room there will be for suspicion and misunderstanding. This sample conversation leaves a lot of room for your bargaining partner to seek clarification, ask questions, and make additional suggestions. That alone should avoid misunderstandings leading to impasse.

I have no reason to doubt that you are, as you say, good at one-on-one and in-person negotiation. Incorporate into your email whatever qualities you bring to those bargaining sessions, whether they be likeability, authority, clarity, concern for your bargaining partner’s well-being, shared values, or top-notch problem solving skills.

Good luck with your particular challenges, and please feel free to write back to us for more detail, a better explanation, or a report about the success of new skills you’ve put to work in your emailed negotiations.

This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask an Expert in the subject line.

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