Negotiating by Email: When Not to Trust the Written Word

15th Apr 2019

Samuel Passow
Samuel Passow

In his seminal book “Understanding Media: The Extension of Man” published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. That was written some 30 years before we began using email and text messages to exchange ideas.

Today, an estimated four billion people use the Internet medium.  According to a report by the technology market research firm, The Radicati Group, in Palo Alto, California, a quarter of all email accounts are corporate or business accounts that send roughly 114 billion messages every day. Nearly half of worldwide email users are in the Asia Pacific region, home to China and India, two of the largest Internet populations. Europe accounts for about 22% of worldwide email users, while North America has about 14% of worldwide email users. The rest of world accounts for the remaining 14% of all email users.

Email is considered a “lean” medium because it transmits neither visual nor verbal cues. Face-to-face communication is considered a “rich” medium because it transmits both. Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA in his book “Silent Messages” coined the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice and body language, play in our interactions with each other. Since emails are solely dependant on words for their cues, the recipient’s interpretation of a message’s tone, attitude and meaning carries far more weight than the sender’s intent. This is especially true when you factor in the fact only 5.4% of the world are native English language speakers and 67% of workers who deal with people beyond their borders say English was the language used most often.

Research by professors at Harvard Business School shows there is a greater tendency to lie or exaggerate with email. There is also more bluffing and intimidating threats.

  • Hard positional negotiators feel more powerful behind the screen, and less concerned about their counterpart’s reaction. As a result, there is less focus on interests, and less value creation.
  • Negotiators don’t feel the pressure of “live performance” and thus there tends to be less preparation, especially in reacting to offers. It is easier to say “No”, and brainstorming is often ignored.
  • Obviously it is more difficult to build rapport and trust; communication challenges arise easily, including rudeness, ambiguous messages, and ill-conceived reactions.

So how does email impact negotiations?

Success with e-mail negotiations depends largely on how it’s used, and more importantly, when it is used.  E-mail is a practical negotiation tool with short-term, effortless deals where both the information and the alternatives are obvious to both the buyer and seller. Given clear data or description of a product, its price, its availability, its delivery, as well as alternative sourcing options, email or e-commerce is both cost-effective and time efficient.

But on more complex deals, which involve trusting the intentions of someone else and building a relationship with a person or an organization, emails should only be used as part of the overall process, and not as a substitute for face-to-face negotiations.

In complex deals, in which a number of people must give their input or approval before a decision is made, email allows parties to transmit detailed data and allows them the opportunity to review the information and collect their thoughts, be it collectively or individually, before responding. Such “breathing space” can give people time to factor-in cultural differences and manage their emotions.

Dr. Joe Haubenhofer of the Department of Education at the University of Minnesota notes that if you send an email to recipients who do not trust you, their “filters” immediately shade the computer screen. They will automatically and unconsciously read your words with a negative tone of voice. The little voice in their head will be saying; “Who is he to be asking me this?” or “Where does he get off telling me that?

Positive relationships are built through personal contact, either face-to-face or through a verbal conversation – the other 93% of Prof. Mehrabian’s rule. If you can’t meet personally, pick up the phone and talk. Your voice tone and manner will convey more information about you and your intent than your written words alone.

Never use email to convey confidential information. If you have bad news to deliver; or if you have differences or disagreements, talk with a person directly. It shows your respect for that person.

Once that respect is established, your email communication in that negotiation process will take on a whole new meaning.

For further research on this subject from Duke University, click on the following link:

The Negotiation Lab has developed a new simulation-based training course on Negotiating Through Email. We would very much like to hear about your negotiation experiences over the Internet to build on our body of knowledge. For more information please contact Samuel Passow on +441227766714 or via email at