Online negotiations: what will remain from those 2 years of Pandemic?

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Introduction

Over the past year, our team has analysed the changes induced by the pandemic on the way negotiations were happening. As a general analytical framework, we considered that a good negotiator needed to not only be able to master one specific axis of the discussion but had to have a general overview of with whom and where they were negotiating as well. We linked this theoretical background, inspired by the work of Lewicky, Barry & Saunders to the Rubik’s Cube metaphor. Within the famous cube, 3 axes compose the general structure and are the key to solving the puzzle. Just like in a negotiation, you need to manage the three axes in a certain way to achieve the outcome you’re seeking. A negotiation is, for us, a balance of 3 types of complexities (social, procedural and computational). Over the course of our previous 11 blog posts, we identified the possible changes or status quos the pandemic had had on these three complexities.

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Computational complexity (the what)

First, we looked at how the computational complexity may have been impacted by the pandemic (for the people in the back, the computational complexity refers to the common “what” of a negotiation: what is the problem and how is it handled or framed).

In this case, we identified two major potential changes: the cognitive overload and the way the issues were framed by so-called “small actors”. Indeed, for the latter, it is commonly agreed that “smaller actors” used to have a stronger “outside” influence rather than an ‘‘inside” one. Therefore, it would be fair to assume that as a lot of activities have moved online and it’s easier than ever to mobilise a large number of people online, “smaller” actors in the negotiation process have now gained in influence.

However, as we’ve explained, inside influence still persists, despite its modifications through more formal procedures, etc. All in all, even if there are good signs of a renewed citizen’s involvement, this mobilisation did not translate into concrete actions. The belief that “small” actors’ proficiency in outside influence would benefit their agenda during the shift online cannot be proven.

Regarding the cognitive overload, the term refers to the feeling of exhaustion we can experience after having spent considerable time behind our screen – particularly after lengthy meetings or negotiations.  As a matter of fact, we argue that it’s important for us to try to manage the overload because it can impact the way we negotiate.

What’s more, we argue that the cognitive overload can not only be a problem in the computational complexity, but also in the social one, as we detail below.

Social complexity (the who)

As for the social complexity – the who – we identified 4 other particularly strong changes or, at least, points of attention that came with the pandemic.

As we explained above, cognitive overload refers to the exhaustion one might feel after a long call. Aside from the consequences cognitive overload can cause, we also discussed the reasons behind it and gave you a few tips to try reducing its effects. One of the reasons given to explain “zoom fatigue” is that we as humans rely heavily on reading non-verbal behavior in everyday communication. The non-verbal aspects of our communication help us by offering greater insight into what our counterpart may be thinking. It is not an exact science, but our instincts are trained to notice when a person’s body language does not match the message they are trying to convey verbally.  However, these codes do not translate online, meaning our brain works twice as hard to interpret what is going on behind the screen. Some went as far as to argue non-verbal codes were now a thing of the past.

In our discussion of the topic, we found that the non-verbal was still an important aspect of our communication, but it was the swift shift to these new online codes which is causing our exhaustion. During every one of our zoom calls, Webex meetings and team chats over the last 2 years, our brains have been working overtime to understand these new non-verbal codes. The security of our old face-to-face, non-verbal style is missing, which only adds to the pressure experienced.

Additionally, still in the cognitive field, we also took interest in biases and how they developed in the online setting. Indeed, any good negotiator knows how biases could hinder their perspectives of reaching a good and fitting compromise – or any compromise at all. Here, clearly, the biases especially group ones can be exacerbated. We gave you a few tips on how to be conscious of them and how to spot them in your interlocutor’s thoughts to correct them.

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We also analyzed the impact the pandemic has had on the socialization process. As a matter of fact, and as we teach in our trainings, most of the negotiation does not happen at the “table”, but rather informally, in the corridors, at the coffee machine etc. Therefore, how can one continue to develop their network once everything closed and interactions limited to conversation that have been planned to make sure everyone’s behind their computer on time? The answer is quite disappointing, we’re afraid. The practitioners we talked to all said the same thing: while it is now easier to network and reach out to people all over globe; it is also a lot harder to create meaningful connections that will help online. Most of our respondents found way around the restrictions – like relying on the pre-existing networks of colleagues, for instance – but still, the socialisation process seemed to be one of the most impacted sides of the shift to online negotiations.

Finally, we have dived into what it means to be assertive during the online negotiations. Assertiveness can be defined as the perfect equilibrium between the passive behaviour (whereby you’d tend to let everything pass because the topic is not a priority for you for instance) and an aggressive behaviour (whereby you’d tend to go the emotional route because the matter is such a priority for you it actually hinders a consensus-seeking approach). Like most of the elements in the social complexity, assertiveness in a negotiation has been impacted deeply by the pandemic. This is because assertiveness is centred on having the proportionate and right answers to signs we perceive from our interlocutors to react accordingly. Once the signs are not received the same way or not even displayed the same way, it appears obviously way harder to find the equilibrium again – although not impossible once one’s had enough preparation (like getting to know even more the socio-cultural background of your interlocutor, for instance).

 

Procedural complexity (the how)

At the start of the pandemic, as we scrambled to move to online forums, many of the people we spoke with confirmed that not everyone felt comfortable with the shift to virtual negotiation table– this is also why certain very high-stakes meetings never occurred online. For instance, one diplomat recalled being very reluctant to agree to legally binding agreements in an online setting, fearing the possibility for one of the parties to use an unstable internet connection as a bargaining tactic if the agreement it didn’t fit their own objectives during the discussion. While we can’t obviously find a way to make ensure everyone’s internet is stable at all times, this highlights the importance of the procedural complexity. How can one handle negotiations, factoring in the online environment? With this in mind, we asked EIPA’s data security experts to talk us through what we need to be aware of in terms of security and online negotiations. One blogpost explained the importance for your organisation to rely on the IT department and to have an informed DPO who will help you secure everything, from the platform to the protection of your data. Knowledge is power, after all. Securing your data accordingly to regulations and your best interest is crucial to ensure your negotiation is going smoothly. This is also why we have dived into the topic of cybersecurity and cyber diplomacy at EU level and the challenges the block might be facing soon. In that way, online platforms are both a procedural and computational complexity.

Conclusion

So, where does that leave us? This is an area that is constantly evolving. Since we started this series, several new developments have taken place, both in terms of technologies available to those wishing to partake in online discussions and in the established social norms for conducting ourselves online. But we are confident that by making use of the three complexities we have outlined through this series, you will be able to master any online negotiation, regardless of what comes next. All you have to do is adapt the three axes (social, computational and procedural) depending on the context. We do not have a perfect universal recipe for every online negotiation you will ever face, because that wouldn’t work.

Negotiations are defined by the context which surrounds them and in order to succeed in your (online) negotiation, you must consider these complexities in the unique context of the current discussion. With that we hope this series has provided you with food for thought for to explore while preparing for your online discussions.

But this is not goodbye. We are launching our new blog series, illustrating how negotiation skills can be used to enhance effective management and leadership within an organisation shortly. We will bring the same level of analysis to a micro level as we seek to highlight how negotiation skills, through our Rubik’s cube approach, can improve your leadership skills within the workplace.

This blog is written by Frank LavadouxOlivia Brown and Mathias Delmeire.

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