How to negotiate virtually and win difficult Zoom conversations, according to research

How to negotiate virtually and win difficult Zoom conversations, according to research
Professor Leigh Thompson says she's seen many instances of virtual negotiations in which parties ultimately insult one another because they cannot agree on how to converse.We Are/Getty Images
  • Leigh Thompson is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
  • She says many of the tactics used for in-person negotiations simply don't work when you're on Zoom.

There was no doubt that Chris, a rising sales manager at a major company, had charisma. When Chris walked into a room, everyone noticed the confident stride, power suit, and firm handshake. Beyond that, Chris was skilled with maintaining eye contact, observing body language, and reading the room.

In short, Chris possessed P-charisma, a term I coined to represent physical charisma. This form of charisma served Chris well with colleagues and clients, leading to tremendous success at the negotiation table and fast ascent through the organization.

However, during the pandemic, Chris (and many others) were forced to pivot to virtual communication. That changed everything: in this new business environment, many professionals quickly realized that in-person communication skills don't transfer seamlessly to the virtual domain.

Whether or not you have natural P-charisma like Chris, building your E-Charisma, or electronic communication charisma is critical, and part of what I call your Virtual Communication Intelligence Quotient (VCQ).

It's not about technical, programming, or computer science skills, but rather the ability to communicate and navigate relationships and achieve business goals when engaging with others who are not physically co-present.


How virtual communication differs from face-to-face

So, how can we build our VCQ? The first step is to understand the three key ways that virtual communication differs from in-vivo communication:

  1. Lack of mutual gaze: Sure, Chris and the rest of us can turn on our cameras and look at people on a virtual call. However, there is a profound, yet rarely acknowledged difference between in-vivo and virtual communication: namely shared mutual gaze, which occurs when two people lock eyes.

    When that happens, the two individuals involved bond, connect, and build trust, often without even realizing it. That's partly because mutual gaze produces an immediate release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

    Moreover, mutual gaze is the key means by which people regulate conversational turn-taking. When a speaker is ready to end a speaking turn, they look at the person they want to speak next; when a speaker wishes to continue to speak, they tend not to maintain eye contact with any particular person.

    Mutual gaze is not possible in virtual communication, which leads to a lack of trust and awkward moments like long pauses or people speaking over each other.
  2. Greater task focus: When people interact in vivo, they often joke and socialize before jumping into business, talking about their weekend plans or recent sports results. Much less so on Zoom, where participants tend to go immediately into task mode, share their screen, and otherwise try to control the conversation.

    This get-down-to-business mode is a problem because the banter that naturally occurs when people negotiate in vivo creates a foundation of trust. Indeed, my research shows that schmoozing — conversing about non-business matters — is the best way to build trust and rapport.
  3. Trust is the default when people communicate in vivo: But for virtual communications, people must establish two types of trust with the counterparty at the negotiation table: competency-based trust, which is essentially communicating to the other party that you know what you are doing and have the relevant skills and knowledge, and benevolence-based trust, or showing that you are a reasonable person who is going to negotiate in good faith.

    When people communicate in vivo, they are innocent (trust-wise) until proven guilty. However, when we communicate virtually, we need to take proactive steps to establish trust; the key reason is that when people are physically co-present, they often socialize, shake hands and experience mutual gaze — all these factors are missing in virtual communication.

Ways to boost Your VCQ

Armed with this knowledge, what should we do to increase our VCQ for negotiations? It boils down to four best practices:

1. Turn on the camera

Many people say they'd opt for invisibility over ability to fly, when given a choice between those superpowers. Unfortunately, we are now able to become invisible by simply turning off our video in virtual meetings.

There are any number of reasonable excuses: "It's early for me"; "I'm having work done on my house"; and the like. But the reality is that video conferences are not phone calls, and when one or more parties turn off their video, this has a profoundly negative impact on the interaction.

For one, people behave more aggressively when anonymous — a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect. In fact, my research shows that even displaying a picture of yourself is far better than disappearing into a "virtual black hole." So turning on your camera is one way to offer a "virtual handshake."


2. Socialize before jumping in

In my research with three other professors of management, psychology, and law, we found that even five minutes of pure socializing had a dramatic positive effect on negotiator profitability and the relationship itself.

Many people worry that if they attempt to socialize before getting down to business, this will create the impression that they aren't serious about the negotiation or are trying to ingratiate themselves.

So, I suggest that people say something like, "Look, we've got a lot of deal points to discuss, and I'm eager to share my ideas and listen to yours. Before we begin, I would love to take just five minutes to chat, and then we can pivot to business. Does that sound good?"

3. Roadmap the negotiation

I've seen too many instances of virtual negotiations in which parties ultimately insult one another because they cannot agree on how to converse.

For example, in one situation, a sales leader wanted to begin the negotiation by doing well, a sales pitch, complete with PowerPoints and bar charts. The customer indicated that he had already "gone to school" on the sales leader's company and would rather review their own needs. As each party tried to force their preference on process, they became increasingly frustrated and the negotiation soured — without a deal sheet.


A better idea is to frame the conversation and ask for agreement. Something like: "I've prepared a list of the to-be-negotiated issues and some key priorities. Would it make sense for us to start by discussing those?" It's the negotiation equivalent of using the GPS app WAZE to agree on a conversational path and course forward.

4. Monitor your message-to-offer ratio

I'm the first person to suggest taking your tennis racket and serving up the first offer in a negotiation. However, volleying offers back and forth at the virtual negotiation table can lead to transactional interaction.

Negotiators can be more persuasive when they wait to make their opening offer so as to better contextualize it with the value-drivers of the other party. Studies of e-negotiations reveal that negotiators were more cooperative and reached more positive outcomes when they sent fewer offers and more messages about their interests, value-drivers, and shared goals (high message-to-offer ratio).

If you really want to be a pro, then make sure that your messages contain some of the key words that the counterparty has used, to create a greater sense of connection and empathy.

Extroverts (myself included) often hold the false belief that they can break the ice and easily charm others when communicating virtually.

Unfortunately, many of the tools that facilitate trust, collaboration, and information exchange when parties communicate in vivo simply don't work at the virtual negotiation table.


For this reason, negotiators should work to bring their best virtual self to the negotiation table by following the research-backed best practices here.

Leigh Thompson is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of "Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table."