By Jong Eun Jung
Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has replaced in-person interactions with email, phone calls, and Zoom. Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management at Vanderbilt, says that this pandemic is deepening people’s understanding of digital communication. “A whole lot of people don’t know anything about Zoom and technology, and they’re just learning fast. And there seems to be enough people in friendship networks… so that the knowledge is spreading really, really quickly,” he said.
While these digital communication tools are keeping us connected during the pandemic, they can’t perfectly replicate face-to-face interactions, and this can lead to miscommunication and other pitfalls. Friedman, whose research interests include electronic communications and dispute resolution, shares four tips to make the most of these communication technologies.
Reconsider that Email
While many people default automatically to email for work-related communications, Friedman explains that email has several drawbacks, namely a lack of voice and visual signals. This can prevent participants from getting real-time reactions and communicating effectively, and it can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. “There’s no voice, there’s no pace of interaction where you’re going back and forth. You have a lack of human connection, and people can be more extreme on how they behave when they don’t see and feel the other side as a human being. And they can tend to overreact and over-interpret,” Friedman said.
Create a Human Connection
Friedman emphasizes how important it is to develop a human connection when communicating electronically with a business partner. He recommends scheduling an initial meeting via video call to talk about family and friends and to make small talk. This will help both parties develop a human relationship before getting straight into business. “(You need to) spend time to create that human connection that’s missing. So have a first meeting… (to) enforce the process of seeing the other person as a rich human being, instead of just someone delivering news about a business deal,” Friedman said.
Understand Stages of Negotiation
Friedman says that there are two main stages of negotiation. The first stage is based on conceptual development, in which both parties come up with ideas. In this stage, email can be an effective platform as the parties both go back and forth. While the first stage of negotiation is more abstract, the second stage is more personal. During the second stage, parties finalize an agreement, making a face-to-face interaction necessary. “Maybe start off with a Zoom meeting to build a relationship a little bit, then back out to email, if that’s needed to think through the range of ideas you want to go through. And then come back together face-to-face as a way to go through what you’ve thought of and winnow it down, and get a feel for what the other side accepts or is upset by or is excited by, and use that back and forth to come to a better deal,” he said.
Words can be interpreted differently online than in-person due to the lack of visual and verbal cues. A text can come across as more aggressive than intended because of the lack of facial expressions or tone. Friedman recommends not over-interpreting messages to prevent triggering anger. “The likelihood of resolving a dispute goes down if you reciprocate anger back and forth,” he said. “And so one of the key lessons is don’t express anger in the same way (as you would in-person). And also be clear that when you’re dealing with pure email, it’s easy to over-interpret the strength of someone’s comments.”