In research reported in 2000, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen Valley found that about 50% of negotiations conducted by email end in impasse, while only about 19% of face-to-face negotiations do so. She also concluded that we behave differently by email than we do in person. As a mediator providing online dispute resolution services to eBay users worldwide, I see that difference in behavior frequently.
In email communication, we tend to share far less information about a topic than when we talk in person or by telephone. So, we end up negotiating based on more limited knowledge and understanding. When information is shared electronically, it’s more likely to be exaggerated or altered. In fact, people lie more readily when interacting through email. And email negotiations are more likely to degenerate into an unpleasant exchange than face-to-face encounters. Simply put, people are more willing to escalate conflict when conversing electronically.
Another study suggests that online groups adopt more extreme positions in conflict, a pattern that reduces effective conflict resolution and negotiation. Other authors have noted that email is used more readily to make unpopular requests and avoid confronting in person. Now, there’s even a term for using email to deal with unpleasant business from a distance: Coward’s choice.
Conflict researchers have noted that email isn’t creating new forms of conflict. Instead, it’s exacerbating some conflict. Our typically electronic behaviors can contribute to an electronic atmosphere of distrust and we miss the non-verbal cues that give us additional information when conducting difficult conversations in person. In face-to-face interactions, we rely heavily (more heavily than we’re aware, research suggests) on vocal intonations, body language and facial expressions as behavioral cues. On the phone, we lose the body language and facial expressions. On email, we lose all of these cues and have to rely on the printed word only to guide us in interpreting the sender’s intent.
What can we learn from these research conclusions? We are still developing cultural norms around electronic behavior. Email, listservs, chat rooms and online discussion boards are adding a new layer to our already-complex human communication system. We also know that electronic communication can be more inclusive, foster dialogue and increase efficiency when well managed, so our task is to reduce the impact of potentially problematic online behaviors. Here are some tips suggested by the research:
Whenever possible, try to develop rapport first. Email negotiating works better when you’ve already developed rapport with the other person. That’s why it’s best to work through disputes in person or over the phone. If an electronic exchange is your only option, Valley suggests you try to build some social rapport before navigating the tricky waters of dispute resolution.
Avoid the "tweaking cc." A tweaking cc is the open copying of an email message to someone the sender believes has power over or influence on the recipient. We do it when we want to strong-arm someone into an action, rattle them a bit, inform on them, or simply let them know that someone else is now watching. A tweaking CC is a quick way to alienate the recipient.
Rely on letter-writing conventions. Particularly in conflict situations, start your message with "Dear Tammy," or "Hello, Rod." Conclude with "thanks for taking the time to read this," or "I hope we can figure this one out." Sign your name. These conventions can feel rather formal, of course, and yet they also send a social signal that simply typing a difficult, stand-alone message fails to send.
Take a deep breath. Our mothers’ advice about counting to 10 applies here. Don’t rattle off a reply when you’ve been tweaked by an email message. Valley says, "Stop typing and pick up the phone." Better yet, sit down over a cup of coffee.
Face-to-face interaction remains, at least for now, the gold standard for discussing difficult matters.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.