4th August 2020

SUPC’S Head of Category Management and Services Rob Johnson shares his thoughts.

Over the last few months, I have spent more hours talking to my computer screen than before “lockdown” I would have thought possible. I have become familiar with solutions such as Zoom, Teams and “Blue Jeans” and have learned how to cope with the challenges of inconsistent broadband and delivery drivers ringing the doorbell at the most inconvenient of times. I still fall foul of speaking whilst my microphone is muted, leading me to wonder whether I will ever fully crack this conundrum of the lockdown age?

The transition to online communication poses several challenges. The likely influence of the new normal on future office work means it is worth considering how we may best be able to identify and respond to these complications. Whilst an online discussion is no substitute for meeting or negotiating in a face-to-face environment it is useful to remember that these tools enable us to stay connected and interact successfully — provided that we understand their limitations and can put them to best use.

Despite some debate around the practical application of the initial studies – it is commonly held by social scientists that as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message is communicated by the words we use. 38% is communicated by the use of the voice, and 55% by the use of gestures, posture and facial expressions. We base our feelings and emotional responses not so much upon what another person says, but upon what another person does. It is behaviour, rather than spoken or written communication, that conveys real meaning. Whilst the adage suggests “actions speak louder than words” our recent experience with video calls may have impacted our natural reliance upon non-verbal “cues”. It is therefore worth reminding ourselves of some triggers to look out for whilst online. 

Non-Verbal Communication

There are many aspects of non-verbal communication, which serve to contradict, emphasise or substitute for verbal messages. A smile, frown, or raised eyebrow all convey information. Facial expressions continuously change and are sub-consciously monitored by the other party. Eye contact is a powerful form of non-verbal communication capable of conveying emotion, aversion and signalling whether to talk or not. A problem arises with such cues where everything is happening at once, and while watching someone’s eyes you may miss something in a hand gesture. It can be confusing to try to keep up with all of the messages, particularly when your field of view is restricted to that afforded by a laptop camera.

Aside from the content of the message, the tone of voice, pitch, quality and rate of speaking also convey emotions that can be judged or misjudged. Consider if the content of an important message during your negotiation is contradicted by how you communicate it. Whilst silence can be a positive or negative influence in the communication process: providing a link between messages, creating tension or unease, or introducing calm into the situation; the successful deployment of silence as a tool in negotiation is greatly compromised in online discussions. Given the possibility of external sounds being picked up, it is probably best to discount the “brooding pause” as a realistic tool for online negotiation.

Improving non-verbal communication whilst online

It is important to consider how your behaviour and your response to the behaviour of others, may enhance your effectiveness on screen. Try not to interpret actions in isolation from verbal communication or the emotional context. Look for clusters; does resistance to eye contact accompany crossed arms and a flat tone of voice for instance?

When trying to improve virtual, non-verbal communication, it is important to appreciate the implications of eye contact. People look more when they are listening. To increase effectiveness, you should make a conscious effort to look directly at the other party and maintain eye contact whilst speaking. Most people use their hands when talking. We regularly see politicians using such movements to emphasise key points. When videoconferencing, we see less of the other person and their environment than we do when negotiating in person. To compensate keep your hand gestures within the frame so that your counterpart can see them. Also, minimize sound and visual distractions on your end as much as possible. Seeing yourself during a video call tends to increase self-consciousness and divert concentration, so you may want to turn off the self-view during the call.

Active Listening

Whether undertaken online or in person, negotiation is about information gathering, processing and persuasion. Taking a few minutes to introduce yourself and make small talk at the start of a meeting can help set the stage for more collaborative interaction. 

Negotiation is a social exchange. Coercive behaviour such as interrupting and talking too much undermines the personal relationship. Recognise that everyone likes to look good in negotiation; that exposing the counterpart’s weakness is always resented; and that direct attack invariably “reaps what you sow”. If you have to be very abrupt, hard, or coercive, then you may need to rebuild the relationship at some stage. Conversely, some people are far too eager to avoid confrontation. If your case needs a strong position, do not allow your personal style, to undermine it. 

It pays to listen intently, since the more information you have the more power you have. The most effective negotiators talk the least; successful negotiation is not so much measured by “air time”, as by “sound bites”, that is saying the right words at the right time to exercise maximum impact rather than by verbally wearing down the other side into submission. The “Active Listener” monitors what they hear; mentally building a dictionary of the language the other party uses so they can respond to them in a way that they understand. If you do not demonstrate that you have heard, people assume that you have not fully understood their position. Be seen to be listening as it also encourages the other person to talk. Try not to interrupt or answer back and hear people out. We speak at about 125 words per minute, yet think at about 450 words per minute, so active listening allows you time to think and process your response.

Key Learning Points

During a negotiation, behaviour functions like a mirror. There’s a direct relationship between your verbal and non-verbal responses and those of the people with whom you interact. It is easy to assume that the size of your verbal contribution is what influences decisions, but do not confuse quantity with quality of response. Never underestimate the power of non-verbal behaviour in online negotiation. What you say, and how you communicate without words, must be congruent. It is easy for your posture and gestures to contradict your spoken messaging. Whether face to face or via video call, behaviour can be managed consciously to positively influence the outcome of your negotiation. 

Sound and Vision: Ten tips for effective negotiation by video conference.
  1. Get Organised: Plan and prepare in with the same rigour as you would do for a face-to-face negotiation.
  2. Ensure your camera is on: Doing this will encourage the other party to do the same and provide the opportunity to gather information from the non-verbal cues of other participants.
  3. Be conscious of your surroundings: Avoid a distracting background and ensure you are properly framed by your camera. Being too close affects the way that you look to other participants and could distort non-verbal signals.
  4. Remember that you are always visible: Even when others are talking, you are constantly sending messages through gestures and reactions.
  5. Read non-verbal communication: If your non-verbal cues are subconsciously sending messages, it will be the same for others on the call. Try to watch everyone even when they are not talking.
  6. Assign a meeting observer: If you are part of a team participating on a call, ensure that you have nominated an observer role – just like you should with a face-to-face meeting.
  7. Check your sound: Be aware of the volume settings for your speaker and microphone. If too low, it results in limited understanding and means that a speaker can be misheard.
  8. Know when to speak: Online conference calls often involve people interrupting each other.
  9. Know when to mute your microphone: Sometimes it is difficult to find a quiet place to talk. Having to repeat yourself because of a dog barking in the background doesn’t do anything to help negotiations.
  10. Manage echo and audio lag: This may happen down to a participant’s computer not working properly, or someone needing to mute their neighbour who is also a participant in the call; either way, it disrupts the conversation.