Positive Email Negotiations

by Professor Manie Spoelstra

Discover how to properly use email in your negotiations. Learn how to build rapport and develop a positive relationship by knowing how to create trust in the message you send

As our elation dimmed with the hearalding of the third millennium, the stark reality of our looming future now stands to challenge us. As the business elite decipher the legacy of the closing decades of the twentieth century, we discover that we continually find ourselves caught in the grip of the demands posed by technology.

To succeed in today's business climate, the only possible choice left to us is to apply our imagination to the insistent impositions posed by technological changes. Should we chose to ignore these demands, then we should perhaps heed the words of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass - "It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that." - lest we be haunted by them.

Any negotiator who neglects to keep pace with today's ever-changing business landscape is doomed to be left frozen in place as the landscape around them changes and hurtles past them.


Conventional understanding has us rigidly conformed to persist with a face-to-face negotiation paradigm. The consequences of this attitude cause us to rarely challenge the perceived need to engage in an extended trip whenever contact with the other party in a negotiation is required. Since the use of email prevents us from meeting directly with our counter party we dismiss it as a means of negotiation. Caught in the web of this paradigm model, we do do not stop and even consider the creative application of email to enhance our interpersonal negotiations.

Research conducted by Michael Morris of Stanford University on the influence of various forms of communication media employed in negotiations revealed that the psychology of trust was the most important factor that determined whether a particular media would make a positive contribution to a negotiation. Morris discovered that although the majority of experienced negotiators place great emphasis on the importance of rapport - shared positive emotion and regard - few paid it little heed since it is so hard to measure. Despite the lack of enthusiasm expressed by his colleagues, Morris was not dissuaded from developing a means to measure the impact of rapport on negotiations. He discovered that the non verbal emotional cues that exist in face-to-face negotiations produce higher levels of rapport than in the case of the telephone.

From other exclusive research performed into the use of email, Morris learned that role-play negotiations conducted by email were usually less successful than one on one interactions. Morris leaned that the primary reason for the lack of success found in email negotiations was due to the use of blunt messages that were either misunderstood or caused offense. Here are several examples to illustrate several possible causes of email miscommunication:

"Anything less than £1 million will be a blatant give-away and will not be a fair price.""You cannot be serious! We are definitely not going to pay for all your development costs and thereby subsidise other costs."

"The minimum damage payment we deserve is £2 million."
"I must say you seem to have a liking for vile jokes. Get serious and stop wasting your and my time! Mail me when you are ready to enter into serious discussions."

Despite the fact that email is an extremely useful medium for transmitting factual information, it is severely limited in terms of tone and attitude. A message that is meant to be clear and concise could be interpreted as blunt and/or rude. Contrarily, a humorous message may be perceived as offensive and derogatory. A poorly constructed email message might destroy a positive relationship that had been built through interpersonal interaction, and could even wreck a potentially lucrative agreement.


The task that we must learn to master is how to employ our email in a manner that it can be used as a useful secondary negotiation medium. It is vital that we include relationship-building content in our email messages. This content must signal positive emotion and intent, such as: "By working together to achieve our mutual interests we have made great progress," or "The trust and flexibility you have demonstrated has made it a fulfilling experience to work with you and your company." These steps will reinforce our intent to override the communication ‘gap' due to the lack of nonverbal expressions and voice.

More thinking time

During interpersonal negotiations, a negotiator frequently feels pressed to accept a settlement that later turns out to be to the detriment of the company. Email is more advantageous as it provides the opportunity for a skilled negotiator to think before responding.

International company negotiations

Morris concludes from his research that if the negotiation has already established a strong basis of trust, then email is less likely to be subject to mistrust and misinterpretation. From this conclusion he has proposed that email used in inter-company negotiations is less likely to be subject to mistrust and misinterpretation because the pre-existing relationship will mitigate the interaction as opposed to the case of intra-company email negotiations. Intra-company email negotiations may be thwarted by office politics and by individuals attempting to use every opportunity to strengthen their influence and power base.

Fortuitously, modern communications technology now enables us to augment our email text with personal and rapport-building information.(video conferencing and inexpensive computer mounted cameras) By enriching our email text with visual, audio and background information many of these email deficiencies can effectively be minimized.

Even though mail may never become a positive means to initiate a negotiation relationship, it is certain that it will play an increasingly important role in sustaining such relationships. The task that faces us is not just to use email as a tool to relay blunt facts but to also express emotional and social information that is necessary to foster and maintain a firm long-term relationship.

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