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Navigating the Virtual Landscape of Email Negotiations

Whether sitting at our desks and thoughtfully composing a proposal or standing in line at airport security and sending a quick reply from our smartphone before catching a flight, emailing is a big part of our professional experience. The interplay of rapidly changing communications technology and evolving social norms has made it just as common to use email whether we are connecting with someone across time zones or just down the hall. As such, the use of email has significant implications for how we conduct negotiations — both with colleagues and with external counterparts.

What makes negotiating over email challenging?

While email can bring efficiencies, it also poses many challenges for negotiating, managing conflict, and discussing complex issues. One of the biggest hurdles is the increased likelihood of misunderstanding. When negotiating over email, we lose the benefit of nonverbal clues such as body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and vocal inflection that help us convey meaning. In high-stakes interactions with a hot emotional climate, we are even more apt to miss the mark. For example, in a study conducted at Harvard University, approximately 50% of email negotiations ended in an impasse compared with only 19% when the interactions were conducted in person.

One of the reasons for increased conflict is that in virtual settings, we lose access to some of the rapport mechanisms that help us develop and maintain human connection with one another. As such, we are less likely to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and see things from their perspective, and are more likely to become entrenched in our demands — an approach that often leads to impasse and suboptimal outcomes.

Four guidelines for negotiating effectively over email

  1. Make strategic choices about when and how to use email
  2. Build relationships to enhance rapport
  3. Draft emails to enhance clarity and mitigate conflict
  4. Read emails constructively

Guideline #1: Make strategic choices about when and how to use email

When considering how to negotiate most effectively over email, the first question is whether, in fact, email is the most appropriate medium to use. Often, logistical constraints or the pace of business leaves us little choice. But, just as often and especially when a lot is at stake, it is worthwhile to explore other options. Even when meeting in person isn't feasible, consider conducting a video call or using the phone. Switching to an alternate forum becomes even more important when a negotiation gets off track, there are misunderstandings, or conflict escalates.

Keep in mind that there are certain advantages email has, each with its own implication for negotiation strategy. To begin with, email is a helpful tool for commitment management. When you want a written track record of the discussion, email can provide this. Even when conversations take place orally, following up with a written summary of the discussion and your agreement and asking for verification can help protect against poor memories, selective or self-serving recall, and dishonest counterparts.

In addition, email can be used as a means to slow down the negotiation process, which can be quite helpful when you are unsure about how to respond and need time to think things through or conduct additional research. It can also provide time to consult with others and build alignment with key stakeholders. Often this is low risk because unlike in a face-to-face discussion, there is a natural expectation of delay built into the structure of email communication, so taking a reasonable amount of time to think and avoid hasty decisions doesn't necessarily send a message of uncertainty or hesitation to your counterpart.

Finally, email can help mitigate power differentials between parties. Less assertive negotiators can use the written format to level the playing field and more easily push back against aggressive personalities and fast talkers. Similarly, when negotiating in hierarchies, more junior people tend to defer and get less airtime than their senior counterparts. Negotiating over email can help ensure all parties are able to share their views.

A 2008, DePaul University study on cooperativeness found that 86% of email collaborations were characterized by uncooperative behavior, compared with 25% when interactions were conducted face-to-face. Naquin et al. 2008.

“Email Communication and Group Cooperation in Mixed Motive Contexts.” Social Justice Research.


Guideline #2: Build relationships to enhance rapport

Many of us regularly negotiate virtually with colleagues, vendors, customers, and other external counterparts whom we have never met. This is often identified as one of the biggest challenges to virtual negotiation — how do I resolve complex and even contentious issues with a counterpart with whom I have no relationship? In fact, it can be enormously helpful to invest in creating a personal connection with colleagues and external counterparts — prior to beginning any negotiation. Such connections can be made via a face-to-face or virtual meeting — or simply by taking the time in email interactions to get to know the human being at the other end of a business transaction. Studies have shown that individuals who have a relationship — even a minimal level of mutual understanding, respect, and trust are significantly more able to avoid impasse, creatively solve problems, and reach better agreements.

Guideline #3: Draft emails to enhance clarity and mitigate conflict

Skillfully crafting email messages will decrease the likelihood of misunderstanding and increase the effectiveness of our communication. Something as simple as a thoughtfully phrased and relevant subject line goes a long way toward productively framing our message. For example, the subject line "Your late payment" is far more likely to lead to a defensive reaction than "Delivery and payment schedule." You should also change the subject line when you are responding to an email once the topic begins to change in the chain of email.

Emails written while we are angry or upset often result in escalated conflict, so it is best not to write or send emails when emotions are running high. Additionally, do what you can to help manage their emotions by anticipating the impact your actions may have on them. For example, when your response time will be delayed inform them of this in advance so they won't interpret it as a lack of interest in closing a deal. In the absence of communication, people often fill the void with their fears about a situation or their counterpart's attribution of negative intent.

As you write, be explicit about your intentions and reasoning. Share the context and purpose behind your statement or question so that it's not taken the wrong way. For example, instead of just writing, "I need your delivery track record," which could be construed as a potential attack, we might say, "I'm asking about your delivery track record because my VP of operations will need that information before she can sign off on the contract." Re-read your emails before sending them. Are you being clear? Could your message be interpreted the wrong way? Consider having a colleague review important emails to benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

In addition to framing our communication constructively, demonstrate a willingness to hear your counterpart's perspective. You can do this by proactively providing space for them to respond with questions or their own point of view. For example, after asserting your perspective on an issue, you might write, "Do you see this differently?"

Finally, be aware of the "audience effect" that occurs when email chains have multiple parties copied on them. For instance, could copying others on the email cause your counterpart to lose face if they need to agree to something they initially resisted or perceive the exchange as reflecting negatively on their performance? One of our clients in the technology outsourcing space refers to angry emails about missed SLAs that copy multiple levels of management as "hand grenades" because of the havoc this email shrapnel wreaks upon critical relationships.

Guideline #4: Read emails constructively

If you find a statement from your counterpart to be aggressive, upsetting, or demanding, hold open the possibility that you are missing important information or that you are misinterpreting their statement. Re-read the message — could it be viewed in a different light? Are we exaggerating their message or interpreting it through the lens of our own demands, frustration, impatience, fear, or insecurity? Consider having someone else review the email without first giving them context. Do they read the tone differently than you?

After negotiating with ourselves to be open to other interpretations, it is wise to test your assumptions by asking for clarification. You might share the ambiguity of your interpretation and ask for clarification. For example, "I can't tell from your email if you're frustrated by…" Of course, this might be easier to do over the phone or in person. Remember that just because they emailed you doesn't mean you necessarily need to respond via email.


Email is a reality in contemporary professional negotiations and carries with it both significant benefit and challenge. As with most negotiations, there are no right answers or set-in-stone rules. Rather, there are factors to become aware of and strategic choices to make. Keep these guidelines in mind to help you navigate the virtual landscape of email negotiations.

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