Leadership Sep 1, 2011

Sight Over Sound

Mode of communication matters in negotiations

Based on the research of

Roderick Swaab

Adam D. Galinsky

Victoria Medvec

Daniel Diermeier

Should you negotiate face-to-face? This question bedevils even the most seasoned negotiators. Partly it is a practical question: Traveling around the world is costly both in terms of time and money, which makes tele- or videoconferencing an attractive alternative. But there might be a hidden price in forgoing a flight. Fortunately, a little face time may be all that is needed.

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A negotiator’s ability to see and hear a partner—face-to-face, for example, or via videoconferencing—might improve his or her chances to seal the deal, but it could kill a deal, too. Personal attitudes appear to be more important in determining a negotiation’s success or failure than the communication channel in which the negotiation takes place, according to research by Adam Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, Daniel Diermeier, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School, and Roderick Swaab, an assistant professor at INSEAD.

“The success of the deal all depends on the negotiators’ attitudes and personal history,” says Galinsky. Although psychologists and communications scholars have widely studied the use and effectiveness of communication channels, the literature is divided regarding their impact on negotiations and group decision-making.

“Within the broad range of research on communication channels, there are contradicting findings,” Galinsky says. “Some studies find that face-to-face contact is necessary to achieve mutually satisfactory outcomes, whereas others find no effect in being able to see and hear each other. Additionally, some studies even show that seeing and hearing the other negotiator can actually hinder agreements and prevent the creation of joint value.”

“Our research resolves all these contradictory data and explains exactly how and why these contradictory effects occur, and can pinpoint exactly what needs to be done to achieve success at the bargain table,” he adds.

To explain the inconsistencies, the researchers developed a “Communication Orientation Model” to explain the relationship between the communicator’s willingness to cooperate and the effectiveness of various communication channels. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis in which they performed a statistical analysis on every study that had been conducted on this topic, taking into consideration whether negotiators could see or hear each other —for example, some negotiated face-to-face or via video chat, whereas others negotiated only via phone or email.

Three Possible Outcomes

For communicators with a neutral stance or no past personal relationship, audiovisual communication channels increase the likelihood of achieving high-quality outcomes. The researchers found that when unacquainted individuals enter into a negotiation, the use of richer communication media that allow negotiators to see and hear each other helps to establish rapport. Nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expression, and gesture, allow these communicators to learn more about the other side and to develop enough trust to share and integrate information.

Communication channels “not only transmit factual information but can also intensify feelings, and their presence has the potential to escalate (already existing) non-cooperative predispositions.”

Alternately, when partners have a history of cooperation or are willing to cooperate, communication channels do not affect the likelihood of high-quality outcomes. In this instance, negotiating partners assume the best of their partners because of a shared history or identity. Partners interpret communication between one another with the best of intentions since there is an inherent level of trust. The researchers found no change in the quality of negotiation outcomes if the negotiators could see or hear each other.

However, audiovisual communication channels decrease the likelihood of high-quality outcomes when negotiators have a history of vitriol and rancor or when they are seeking personal gain. Aggressive behavior during negotiations can lead people to use competitive tactics to defend and protect their own interests. As a result, these channels hinder the exchange of ideas and ultimately prevent a successful resolution. Communication channels “not only transmit factual information but can also intensify feelings, and their presence has the potential to escalate (already existing) non-cooperative predispositions,” the authors write. The researchers suggest that in tense talks, resolutions are more likely to be achieved by restricting communication (face-to-face or electronically) and introducing a mediator. “Our mission was to resolve these contradictions,” Swaab says. “Also, we wanted to understand how parties could reach an outcome that is most beneficial to all—a high-quality outcome. The Communication Orientation Model provides a more stable context in which to examine decision-making among groups and explains why there is a range of existing findings.”

Related reading on Kellogg Insight

When to Come Out Swinging: Devise the right strategy for negotiations or online auctions

Successful Mediators Wanted: No Robe Required. Skill should trump judicial experience when choosing a mediator

To Settle or Not to Settle: Negotiations and attorney interests in medical malpractice cases

Featured Faculty

Adam D. Galinsky

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2012

Victoria Medvec

Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management & Organizations

Daniel Diermeier

Faculty member in the Department of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences until 2014

About the Research

Swaab, Roderick I., Adam D. Galinsky, Victoria Medvec, Daniel Diermeier. Forthcoming. Out of synch, sound, and sight: A meta-analysis of communication cues in negotiations. Personality and Social Psychology Review.

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