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E-mail Negotiation

From Nightmare to Nirvana.

E-mail Negotiation


HAVE YOU FOUND YOURSELF negotiating over e-mail more and more often lately? According to Ralph Kilmann(1), you may sometimes be hiding behind e-mail technology to avoid potential conflict. To check if he might be right, look at his four suggested context areas.




He suggests four suggested context areas. He suggests that e-mail negotiations are suitable for:

1. Simple issues.
2. Issues that are of relatively low importance to each party.
3. Topics that don’t involve no strong emotions.
4. Addressing issues when not much time is available (issues that can be addressed without a face-to-face  meeting).

For all other situations, he recommends calling or arranging a live meeting. He concludes: “… (in those conditions) you won’t be able to achieve a synthesis via an e-mail exchange that truly satisfies everyone’s most important needs.” Based on my empirical experience, he’s got a point.

The problem these days, however, is that communication over electronic media has increasingly become an integral part of our society (Hilbert & López in J. Mazei(2). What that means is that, regardless of your conflict-solving mode of preference, we’re all going to negotiate more and more often via e-mail. Recently, I’ve been hired to deliver negotiation training without ever seeing the client’s face prior to the training day! And this trend is here to stay. Just watch your kids playing with your smartphone for a while…

Indeed, e-mail is a tough playing field. So the question is: how to minimize the downsides of e-mail negotiations and maximise the upsides? Let me share the three strategies I find most useful:


One article on the topic of e-mail negotiation is called Schmooze or lose: social friction and lubrication in e-mail negotiations. (Morris et al.(3)). The reason behind it is quite simple: one significant difference between e-mail and face-to-face communication is the media richness. While face-to-face interactions are rich in meaning,  accompanied by many nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, mimicking, intonation etc. - e-mail is in contrast, very lean. There are less cues to rely on. As a result, bargaining time, outcome satisfaction and the desire for future negotiation interaction all tend to be negatively impacted.

Want an example? Here’s a Whatsapp conversation transcript:

“Hey, is the ping pong table still for sale?”
 “Yes it is.”
“Will you take trades?”
 “Read the Ad… no trades. Cash only.”
“Will you trade for cash?”
 “So you mean would I sell it for money? Obviously, yes…”
“No, no sell. Trade. For some cash I have.”
“So will you not trade or…”
 “I will literally give you the table in exchange for you never texting me again.”
“So like a trade?”

Feel the friction?

TIP: SCHMOOZE – a small photo and some biographical information sent, a positive comment about a detail from the other party’s LinkedIn profile, or a brief phone call about personal issues prior to the negotiation can work wonders. According to Thompson & Nadler(4), even little things can make a dramatic change to electronically mediated negotiations.


Second, e-mail communication tends to be more fact based. Most people work hard to get the facts right and make a special effort to write only arguments that can be supported and defended. One of the reasons being: there is written evidence every time we click send! As a result, the social friction grows. The ease we feel when cooperating with someone is something that takes a focused effort to create over e-mail. 

Mazei(2) mentions a recent study that suggests using humour can be a valuable strategy for e-negotiation and I can see why: I’ve immediately fallen in love with Randy Glasbergen’ s cartoons (the ones I use in this Newsletter). The research says I am not the only one: when we’ve shared a positive experience with someone, we tend to be more cooperative and trusting in general.

TIP: Use a humorous cartoon, a safe joke, or a funny picture. Of course, once negotiating across cultures be careful to watch for the potential misinterpretations.


The third issue with e-mails is the myth that it diminishes existing social boundaries: the fact that it makes it easier to contact anyone makes us all just individuals in the “global village”, right?

In reality, there is research evidence that the use of e-mail as a medium actually does the very opposite – it magnifies the so called in-group bias.

What it means is that if you don’t belong to the same group, you run a greater risk of a stalemate. However, when communicators share a common social identity (e.g. their university affiliation, professional association membership, similar career history etc.), they appear to be more susceptible to group influence. (Postmes et al.(5)).

Think about this: would you feel safer buying a used car from a colleague of yours working in another city, even though you’ve never met in person, or from a total stranger?

TIP: Find a meaningful common social group. If you can identify a group whose social norms support trustworthy behaviour, you can capitalize off the in-group bias and get to cooperative mode faster.

In summary, electronically mediated negotiations are to grow in number. The three strategies that compensate for the challenges are: a) mutual self-disclosure b) shared positive experiences, and c) common group membership. All three have proven to improve the results of e-mail negotiations both in research and in practice. Why not check them out?

PS: Just be aware: once the messages start getting longer than one screen, pick up a phone.



(1) Ralph H.Kilmann: Looking at E-mail Negotiations with the TKI Conflict Model, KIlmann Diagnostics, 2015
(2) Mazei Jens and Guido Hertel: Trust in Electronically Mediated Negotations, Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2016
(3) Morris M. et. al: Schmooze or lose: Social friction and lubrication in e-mail negotiations. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 2002
(4) Thompson, L.L. & Nadler, J: Negotiationg via information technology: Theory and application. Journal of Social Issues, 2002
(5) Postmes T et. al: Breaching or Building Social Boundaries? SIDE-effects of computer-meduated communication.  Communication Research, 1998


Pavel Novak’s truly unique negotiation coaching helps you consistently achieve profitable agreements while also strengthening your professional relationships.  Working at the cutting-edge of behavioural psychology, Pavel has studied closely with the leading authorities, including world-renowned American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, with Bruce Patton, Distinguished Fellow at the Harvard Negotiating Project, and with Tim Cullen, MBE, Director of the Oxford University Programme on Negotiation.  Pavel helps you implement current negotiation trends so that you can confidently use your skills in any context.