Oh, and many more emails.
In this “new normal” of mostly virtual work interactions, writing an effective and persuasive email has never been more important. But is your electronic communication effective? Or do recipients end up unresponsive, upset or unmoved?
Leigh Thompson, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, is a negotiation expert. Her new book, Negotiating the sweet spot: The art of leaving nothing on the tablediscusses how to find the readily available (but not always obvious) sweet spot: a “near-optimal, highly satisfying, relationship-sustaining solution to personal and professional problems.”
In her book, Thompson directly addresses the challenges of finding an optimal solution even when there are no face-to-face clues. In the excerpt below, he describes three hacks for negotiating via email, text, chat, or instant message.
Editor’s note: This excerpt has been condensed.
Communication Cholesterol (Watch Your Ratio)
I find it helpful to think of your online communication like cholesterol, meaning there are two kinds of conversational tones: positive and negative. Communication with positive tones is conveyed with phrases such as “It’s great”, “I really like it . . . ‚” and “Thank you very much”, through greetings (“Dear so-and-so”) and closings (“Best wishes”), as well as in emojis such as smiley faces and the use of exclamation marks.
Communication with negative tones is conveyed through denials and other phrases such as “I don’t think . . .” and “This is a problem” and the even harsher “I’m not happy with . . ..” When it comes down to it, it’s the ratio of positive to negative that really matters in our electronic communication, not the absolute number per se. For this reason, I often have business people show me an email chain with a colleague, customer, or client and then punctuate the communication in a negative tone (eg, “I’m worried,” “It’s not what I expected,” “There’s a problem ”) and circle all phrases with a positive tone (eg “That’s nice”, “I appreciate… ‚” “It’s great”). Then I have them count the circles and underlines and look at their proportions. This is all part of what is called “emotional commitment”.
According to researchers, three kinds of commitment it can be measured in your words: emotional commitment, social commitment and work commitment. Let’s face it: relationship building is harder via email rather than face to face. A key to building a relationship through online communication is commitment. But how?
As a second step in analyzing your email communication, count all your pronouns—eg. “I”, “me”, “you”, “we”, “our”, “us”, etc. Personal pronouns reflect attention to people rather than objects or concepts. The more personal pronouns there are, the more people pay attention to people — themselves as well as others. First person pronouns are interesting.
While using a lot of “I, me, mine” can reflect a neurotic or ruminative self-focus, in natural conversation it often takes the form of hedging (eg, “I think this might work”). But it can also reflect dominance. According to the researchers, the ideal ranking order of the use of personal pronoun in negotiation is first: “you”, second: “we”, third: “I” and fourth: “they”. Your total number of pronouns reflects your social engagement.
Finally, circle all the verbs (action words) in your email (“work,” “talk,” “meet,” “align,” etc.). These reflect dedication to the project.
Consider at least three exchanges between you and another person using these three indexes. Are you engaged? Is the other engaged? In which dimensions: emotional, social, duty?
The hack is twofold. First, don’t start messages with anything negative. Why; This creates an overall gloomy tone and negativity in the other person so that everything that follows is interpreted as negative. So start with the positives. Second, aim for at least a two-to-one ratio in your positive-to-negative messages.
A picture is worth a thousand words
A while ago I did my first podcast. The potential audience was huge—“perhaps as many as ten thousand people,” my host said. Plus, the time frame of the podcast seemed long—over an hour—and I was going to talk about teamwork and negotiation. After I gave a thirty-minute introduction, the host had to ask me questions. I didn’t know the questions beforehand and had to answer on the spot.
Knowing the research on disengagement and the negativity effect (we tend to act more negatively when the communication is not in person, like a podcast, where the audience can’t be seen or heard), I was worried that I would start to feel disconnected from my audience. —or, even worse, I might inadvertently say something too harsh or judgmental.
So, an hour before the podcast started, I found a color photo of a large lecture hall that clearly showed the faces of engaged, friendly students. I printed out a large version of the image and taped it to my wall, right above my computer.
When it came time for the podcast, I motioned to look at the faces of the students in the photo—many of them were smiling—and found myself smiling and even nodding at them occasionally. I’m sure my colleagues looking through my windowed office door thought I was either crazy or on hallucinogenic drugs! But my hack worked for me. I had warded off the phenomenon of liberation and negativity in one fell swoop by placing the photo of the lecture hall on my wall. I had created a human factor to engage key parts of my brain during this important first podcast.
This “photo of real people” hack led to a real, science experiment My colleagues and I conducted an email negotiation from the student managers. Here’s the twist: We gave some participants a thumbnail photo of their opponent. Others were not given a photo. Everything else about the negotiation was identical between the groups. The results clearly showed how important the visual factor—in this case, a very small image—is in humanizing the interaction. Student managers who received a thumbnail of their opponent’s photo generated more sweet deals in their online negotiations than those who did not receive the photo. Specifically, 96 percent of negotiators who received the small photo reached a mutual agreement, compared to only 78 percent of the no-photo group. Even more remarkably, the group that had a photo generated sweet spot deals that totaled $1.68 million more in collective value than the no-photo group!
Put pride aside
People behave differently when they are not face to face. They are more negative and often more arrogant, conveying the impression that they are entitled and not easy to work with. This is a problem because too much pride or hubris impairs our ability to find the sweet spot in any kind of negotiation. If we are inadvertently transferring negative impressions to non-face-to-face interactions, we need a wake-up call!
Too much pride can blind us to finding sweet spots. Why; Whether we realize it or not, people quickly develop impressions of our personalities based on very limited information.
In fact, some research studies show that we develop lasting impressions of people within minutes—sometimes seconds—of meeting them! This means that within minutes or seconds of writing and sending an email to someone, the recipient is already forming a character sketch of your personality!
Several research studies have examined leaders’ emails and other written communications as windows into their personalities. For example, “dark personality” traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism (allowing the ends to always justify the means), and hubris—can be measured by examining writing styles. In this context, some have speculated that the 2008 banking crisis was caused in part by CEO hubris. A study examined CEO letters to shareholders of a bank over ten years for personality factors such as narcissism, hubris, overconfidence, and CEO performance (ie, how leaders explain good and bad events). More than half of the CEOs’ sentences contained “narcissistic speech.” And, in 45 percent of the sentences talking about narcissism, there were three more symptoms of hubris — meaning what’s known as “extremely abusive” behavior. The symptoms: very little “bad news” was shared. more than half of the “good news” was attributed to the CEO. and all bad news was attributed externally. The longer the CEO served, the more hubris the researchers found in the writing!
It’s easy to see how abusive communication can damage negotiations and other interactions. So what’s the hack-put-pride-aside? Look over your important written communications carefully before sending them. Avoid using the royal “we” (using “we” when you mean “I”) and don’t talk about yourself in the third person. Ideally, have a peer read your critical communications carefully to look for boastful, charming, arrogant, or patronizing statements. Also, avoid reckless and impulsive language. As an example, consider the case of JD, a student and client executive, the director of portfolio management at a large pharmaceutical company. JD was involved in a negotiation with a biotech company partner to design a clinical trial. In part, JD shared with me a draft of an email he intended to send to the “opposing party”: After reviewing multiple study designs to achieve a robust, statistically significant endpoint to lead to a “go/no” decision -go” agree on the following design.
I told JD that the communication had all three markers of hubris: his use of “we,” his arrogant assumption that his plan was the only one, and his thinly veiled threat to walk away—the “forbidden” part (impulsive language). With much encouragement from me, JD finally revised his email to read: I am pleased to report that my team and I have reviewed a number of study designs with the goal of obtaining clear findings. There is consensus on a specific plan for the trial. I’m very keen to hear what your thoughts are on the design. JD mentioned to me that the biotech partner was receptive to the proposed plan and they proceeded to work together, resulting in a sweet deal!
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Given the ubiquity of electronic communication, we must be proactive in cultivating and enhancing our communication style. Simply relying on “gut instinct” or what works well in our face-to-face meetings can be misinterpreted by the recipient of our electronic communication. People who rely on autopilot to compose and respond to emails, texts, and phone messages are likely to fall victim to one of the problems of electronic communication, with bad results. Use the ideas here to avoid it.