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Communication in Negotiations

What is the significance of “communication” in a negotiation?

Negotiation is essentially an exercise in communication. The underlying objective is to use communication techniques to convince, persuade, or alter the perceptions of another. The three most significant elements of communication include verbal communications, non-verbal communications, and the medium of communication.

• Verbal Communication – The effectiveness of verbal communication in a negotiation depends upon the ability of the speaker to encode thoughts properly and on the ability of the listener to understand and decode the intended message(s). Language operates at two levels: the logical level (for proposals or offers) and the pragmatic level (semantics, syntax, and style). We often focus upon logical attributes instead of semantic or style attributes. In any event, the meaning conveyed by a proposition or statement is a combination of one logical, surface message and several pragmatic messages. A negotiator’s word choice, tone, tempo, and inflections may not only signal a position but also shape and predict it.

• Nonverbal Communication – Non-verbal communication is anything that is “not words”. Examples of non-verbal communication includes: vocal cues or paralinguistic cues; facial expressions; eye contact; interpersonal spacing; posture; body movements; gestures; touching, etc. Generally, successful communicators are nonverbally sensitive, nonverbally expressive, nonverbally self-controlled, and motivated to perform for their “audiences”. It can be extremely important with regard to persuasion, power, and trust. People assert dominance and power through nonverbal cues. High social power is reliably indicated by patterns of looking while speaking and listening. Body language can be aggressive, coy, eager, engaged, inviting, closed-off, etc. A skilled negotiator will use any non-verbal communications in a manner that furthers her strategy and strengthens her position. A neutral exhibition of non-verbal communication is known as “attending behaviors”. Attending behavior lets the other know that you are listening and prepares her to receive your message. Examples of attending behavior include making eye contact when speaking and adjusting one’s body position to show engagement.

• Communication Channel – People negotiate through a variety of communication media: over the telephone, in writing, and increasingly through such electronic channels as e-mail and teleconferencing systems, instant messaging, and even text messaging. It is important to recognize the context of the negotiation and select a communication channel that maximizes the potential for value creation and agreement. Sometimes, however, there is little option to choose a channel. In such a case, it is important to be aware of the general hurdles that any communication channel entails. For example, there is evidence that negotiation through written channels is more likely to end in impasse than negotiation that occurs face-to-face or by phone. There is also evidence that e-mail negotiators reach agreements that are more equal than face-to-face negotiators. Further, negotiators using e-mail need to work harder at building personal rapport with the other party if they are to overcome limitations of the channel that would otherwise inhibit optimal agreements or fuel impasse.

What is communicated during a negotiation?

• Offers, Counteroffers, and Motives – A negotiator communicates her preferences during a negotiation. Selectively relaying preferences can have a powerful influence on the actions of the other party and on outcomes. A communicative framework for negotiation assumes that the communication of offers is a dynamic process; the process is interactive; and various internal and external factors drive the interaction and motivate a bargainer to change his or her offer.

• Information about Alternatives – The existence of a BATNA changes several things in a negotiation: 1) Compared to negotiators without attractive BATNAs, negotiators with attractive BATNAs set higher reservation prices for themselves than their counterparts; 2) Negotiators whose counterparts had attractive BATNAs set lower reservation points for themselves; and 3) When both parties were aware of the attractive BATNA that one of the negotiators had, that negotiator received a more positive negotiation outcome.

• Information about Outcomes – Negotiators should be cautious about sharing their outcomes or even their positive reactions to outcomes with the other party. This is especially true if they are going to negotiate with that party again in the future.

• Explanations – “Social Accounts” is the method used by negotiators to explain things to the other party, especially when negotiators need to justify bad news. Sitkin and Bies (1993) suggest that three types of explanations are important:

⁃ Explanations of mitigating circumstances, where negotiators suggest that they had no choice in taking the positions they did;

⁃ Explanations of exonerating circumstances, where negotiators explain their positions from a broader perspective, suggesting that while their current position may appear negative, it derives from positive motives; and

⁃ Reframing explanations, where outcomes can be explained by changing the context.

• Procedural Matters – Communications regarding what needs to take place and how. It can involve how well the process is going or what procedures might be adopted to improve the situation. Recall that a primary interest of a negotiator may be procedure-based as much as outcome or relationship-based.

How to improve communication in negotiation?

• Ask Questions – Asking good questions enables negotiators to secure a great deal of information about the other party’s position, supporting arguments, and needs.

• Listening – Listening can be broken down into passive, active, and acknowledging. “Passive listening” involves receiving the message while providing no feedback to the sender about the accuracy or completeness of reception. “Acknowledging” is who the receiver acknowledges the message, such as occasionally nod their heads, maintain eye contact, or interject responses. “Active listening” occurs when receivers are actively listening, they restate or paraphrase the sender’s message in their own language. Successful reflective responding is a critical part of active listening.

• Role Reversal – This is putting one’s self in the position of the other party. It allows the parties to understand the interests and constraints of the counterparty. Role reversal is effective in producing cognitive and attitude changes. When the parties’ positions are fundamentally compatible with each other, role reversal is likely to produce acceptable results (cognitive and attitudinal change). When the parties’ positions are fundamentally incompatible, role reversal may sharpen the perceptions of incompatibility and inhibit positive attitude change. Role reversal does not necessarily lead to easy resolution of a conflict, particularly when accurate communication reveals a fundamental incompatibility in the positions of two sides.

Communication is a tool for carrying out negotiation. Every negotiator uses communication to relay information between parties. A skilled negotiator may seek to make the counterparty believe something about her interests, BATNA, reservation point, and cost or delay or non-agreement. Tactics for achieving this might include:

• Direct Presentation – The negotiator makes partial disclosure of certain information while strategically withholding other to guide the counterparty to the desired assumptions. This may create an emotional reaction in the counterparty that fosters accommodation. Be careful to not be untruthful or deceitful, as this can affect or destroy the negotiation if discovered.

• Vague Reference – The negotiator makes subtle reference to her interests, BATNA, reservation point, or cost of delay or non-agreement. These inexact references will cause the other party to assume information in a given range. Be careful to avoid being exact in stating a range, as the counterparty will assume the lower end of the range is the true reservation point.

• Screening Activities – The negotiator remains silent with regard to interests, BATNA, reservation point, and costs of delay or non-agreement. She will seek to communicate by asking questions that focus on the counterparty. The counter party may reveal information in response to these questions that is useful in deducing the desired information.

• Contextual Modification – The negotiator may seek to influence the interests, BATNA, reservation point, or cost of delay or non-agreement by modifying the context of the negotiation. This can be done through altering the interest(s) at stake; creating uncertainty or changing the counterparty’s view of their alternatives; changing the counterparty’s perception of the repercussions for failure to reach an agreement; or manipulating the medium or timing of communication.

Any of the above methods can reveal information about the counterparty.

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