As a follow up to my diatribe on e-mail communication and in response to the many questions about e-mail practices specific to negotiation, I dug a little deeper. Here is what I found out.

Kathleen Valley, a Harvard Business School Professor, did a study back in 2000 on e-mail and negotiation. Her research discovered that a startling 50% of negotiations done by e-mail end up in stalemates: no agreement. This impasse percentage is far greater than with face-to-face negotiations, which result in stalemates 19% of the time.

What this research tells us is that we behave differently with e-mail and that the obvious cause is the lack of communication or information that is included in e-mails. Missing from e-mail negotiations are social cues such body language, tone of voice, and eye contact.

The study also indicated that some people are more prone to omitting information or to outright lying when using e-mail. Apparently, some people feel less accountability from an ethical standpoint when using e-mail (catch me you if can, so to speak).

Conflict escalates more quickly with e-mail and this may be rooted in passive-aggressive behavior. This means that it is easier to confront someone with bad news using e-mail than it is in-person; it gives some people courage that they might otherwise lack in a face-to-face encounter. Sales people see this frequently with bad news coming in the form of an e-mail at end of the day from a buyer who didn’t return the phone calls.

What this research tells us is that face-to-face to communication makes for better negotiations. E-mail communication works for existing relationships, but we need to be very careful about what we choose to say or not say in e-mails, since without the social cues of face-to-face communication, we may do more harm than good.

John Bradley Jackson
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