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Negotiations demand subtlety. Whether you’re an employee arguing for a pay bump, a consumer haggling over product prices, or a CEO setting terms for a potential merger, understanding when to press your point, compromise, or walk away entirely is the key to holding productive discussions. 

As a negotiator, you need to pick up on countless subtle clues -- body language, voice tone, bluffs -- to know when talks are (and aren’t) going your way. It’s a delicate art at the best of times, one that all but requires careful observation during in-person conversations.

Now, COVID-19 has tossed all of our expectations for productive negotiations into the air. Suddenly, the conversations that we otherwise would have had in person are taking place over the phone, via email, and on video conference platforms -- and all of the unspoken information we might have readily picked up in person must sieve through digital channels

We lose our interpersonal insights to weak Internet connections, grainy video feeds, background noise, and narrow camera angles. It’s all but impossible to read another person’s facial expression or pick up on a gesture that occurs off-screen. 

Even establishing meaningful eye contact is difficult. As one communications expert recently shared for Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation, video-conversationalists almost always appear to be looking down because their webcams sit at the top of their screens. This disconnect, the expert explained, can prevent negotiators from building the trust and rapport that they would have otherwise achieved in a face-to-face discussion. 

Given all of this, should we resign ourselves to the prospect of subpar negotiations during COVID-19? Would it be better to give up on negotiating altogether, or wait until after the pandemic has passed to revisit essential discussions? 

Maybe. But by writing off virtual negotiations entirely, you might be setting yourself up for significant losses. These conversations happen for a reason; if we don’t argue for our interests, we naturally end up with deals that aren’t as beneficial. Over time, these subpar deals could lead to lower earnings, less-lucrative business contracts, and even lesser business achievement. 

Take salary discussions as an example. In 2007, social science researcher Linda Babcock conducted a study on pay negotiations and found that while 57 percent of men attempted to negotiate their first salary, only seven percent of women did the same. Those who argued their points, however, were able to boost their pay by seven percent. This increase might seem small at first glance, but consider how the difference stacks over time. As one negotiation professor for Stanford explained for the Muse, “If you get a $100,000 salary and your co-worker negotiates up to $107,000, assuming you’re treated identically from then on, with the same raises and promotions, you’d have to work eight years longer to be as wealthy as them at retirement.”

The potential benefits are enormous. Are we really going to give them up because digital negotiations seem challenging? Of course not! Here’s what you can do to hold productive, virtual conversations during COVID-19. 

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Regardless of whether you’re negotiating virtually or in-person, most of your work will be done before you ever step through a conference room door or hit a virtual “join” button. If you want to hold productive discussions, you need to develop a clear understanding of what everyone in the room wants out of the conversation. If you go into negotiations only considering your interests, your self-absorption might cause the other party to become frustrated and disengage. 

Think long- and short-term. What do those on the other side of the table want? How can you align your interests with theirs? Can you craft an argument that takes their interests into account and provides a solution that appeals to all parties? Develop a thoughtful case, and you may find that you’ll obtain more than you would have from being self-centered.

Optimize Your Approach for Digital Mediums

Virtual platforms are not perfect. It can be challenging to discern facial expressions, note gestures, or pick up cues over video -- so it is critical to compensate for those lapses as much as possible. Negotiation guru Noam Ebner recently provided a few strategies via a blog post for Harvard’s Program on Negotiation; these included keeping hand gestures within the camera’s view, minimizing sound and visual distractions, and closing out of all programs other than what is required for the conference at hand. 

Take steps to ensure the best technical experience possible, too. Check your Internet and connection beforehand to identify and solve potential glitches before they derail your conversation. Tailor your appearance for the camera; make sure that your background is plain and professional, and that your workstation is ideally oriented for videoconferencing.

As journalist Becca Farsace wrote in an article for the Verge at the start of the pandemic, “There is one, and only one, acceptable camera angle: head-on and at eye level. Your table is almost certainly going to be lower than your face, and that means people are going to get an unflattering look up at you.” Farsace provides a few recommendations for solving this issue, including using a set of books to lift the camera to an acceptable height, and orienting the camera so that your brightest light source is no more than 45 degrees removed from your face. 

Watch Your Wording

This is an unprecedented time -- so, recognize it! Put extra emphasis on empathy and connection as you navigate your negotiations. To borrow a quote from Refinery29’s Marshall Bright, “You may be stressed and overworked, but chances are your boss feels that way too. Starting with an empathetic statement makes the other person feel understood and acknowledged.” 

Once you’ve established an empathetic bond, you can begin sharing the case you developed during your pre-negotiation brainstorm while highlighting how your interests align with your conversational partner. If you find that the other party isn’t willing to budge due to our current uncertain circumstances, take a step back and offer to defer the conversation. 

True, you might not get what you want when you want it -- but by rescheduling your negotiations, you demonstrate your understanding while still leaving the door open to future gains. Make sure to choose a specific date if you decide to defer; otherwise, you might find that you never revisit the conversation. 

Negotiation is vital in business. Don’t let COVID-19 take away opportunities and gains that could be yours with a little preparation and strategy. 

About the Author(s)

Debrah Lee Charatan

Debrah Lee Charatan is an entrepreneur and real estate veteran widely recognized for her experience brokering, investing, and developing commercial, residential, and mixed-use properties in the New York City area.

President, BCB Property Management
Negotiating Over Zoom: A Few Tips to Tip the Scales