Today, we are talking about using a combination of online/virtual and face-to-face negotiation meetings during complex contract negotiations in the project businesses (construction projects, power projects, oil & gas or water). But, you can definitely extrapolate the findings here below to other negotiations.

Currently, negotiators are talking a lot about the disadvantages of virtual negotiation meetings when compared to face-to-face meetings. But what happens when part of the team is sitting together and some important participants are at a distance?

Disadvantages of online/virtual meetings

Virtual meetings are meetings done through modern technology – where people can’t meet physically – but connect at a distance. Ideally, this is done in a professional videoconferencing room, sometimes with software platforms and sometimes simply with a telephone.

Indeed, the fact of not being able to (really) look your counterpart in the eyes is a huge disadvantage. As we all know, body language plays an important role in communication.

Therefore, the general recommendation from negotiation guru’s is that, if stakes are high, you should not hesitate to travel and have face-to-face meetings.

And what about combined meetings (partially virtual, partially face-to-face)?

For various reasons, it may be difficult for your entire team to be present at a remote location: lack of time, missing travel documents (visa), cost savings etc.

It may seem a good idea to have part of your team physically present. Under what circumstances can it be acceptable for some team members to be only virtually present? And when should this absolutely be avoided? Let us analyze the two cases together.

virtual and face-to-face negotiation meetings combined

1. Virtual participation to a negotiation can be a good idea

Some negotiators intervene as subject matter experts. Maybe these individuals do not even see themselves as negotiators? They get their authority from deep knowledge on a particular subject. This can be fiscality (tax issues), financial matters (e.g. bank guarantees), insurance issues etc. Most of the time, they discuss with peers from the counterpart (i.e. similar subject matter experts). Respect between them is usually granted and the discussions remain mostly at a technical level while the commercially sensitive matters – like risk allocation – are delt with by the lead negotiators.

I’ve personally had very good results when involving subject matter experts at a distance. Their participation, even virtually, can unblock situations thanks to their credibility on a narrow domain. The lead negotiator can keep control of the situation by structuring the conversation around well-chosen questions and deal with the sensitive matters herself.

2. Not a good idea to negotiate virtually in some circumstances!

Let me start with stating the most important: The core negotiation team, and certainly the lead negotiator, should – in my opinion – be physically present in the negotiation room. If that cannot be achieved, it is better to transform the entire meeting into a virtual one. This will remove the imbalance and will keep the participants concentrated on communicating with all around the virtual negotiation table.

Things get especially complicated in the following cases:

  • You have never met your counterpart in person.
  • The sound quality is bad and you do not even know who is saying what.
  • You don’t recognize the voices and there are no video images.
  • The teams are large: 4 persons or more making up your counterpart’s team or multiple stakeholders (Employer’s representatives, several participants from the Engineer, Authorities etc.) are at the real negotiation table.

It is not a good idea to have just your local representative physically present. She will either become the focal point of the entire discussions or will be unable to support the remote lead negotiator who may fail to pick-up certain signals from the actual meeting room.

Sharing my own worst-case feedback

One of my personal horror stories was as follows. We were negotiating from France while the actual negotiation room was in Australia. I remember wishing the kids good night at the start of the meeting and then having them wake up and leave for school before the meeting finished. Obviously, this was due to the enormous time difference between both countries.

The lawyer on my side was sitting in yet another location! We could only exchange instant messages to coordinate. And, our consortium partner was in the negotiation room with the client. We had not met neither the consortium partner nor the client in person. Our former lead negotiator had but he was absent.

There were no video images. Our actual presence was just our voice coming out of a laptop computer. Needless to say that, in such circumstances, it is almost impossible to have a positive influence on the negotiation outcome. Your only choices are stalling the negotiation by excessive argumentation or holding back and becoming largely irrelevant.

Please do whatever you can not to get in such situations! Quicker than you would imagine, you could end up in such a trap. Then, remember this article!

What can you do if you are caught up in such a situation?

Some tips and tricks to make the best out of such an adverse situation.

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare: this is important for any negotiation, even face-to-face. But, as circumstances become more complicated in a virtual meeting, this becomes ever more obvious.
  • Structure the meeting as much as possible. Make each person state her name before starting to talk. And, no interruptions allowed.
  • In order to obtain a controlled environment, you have to negotiate the rules first! Establish upfront the subjects, the negotiation variables, the timing, etc.
  • Avoid any excessive reactions like anger or threats.
  • Clearly explain why you believe such a mixed negotiation room, face-to-face plus virtual, is complicated and obtain empathy from your counterpart.

Closing words on virtual and face-to-face negotiation meetings

As a lead negotiator, take care not to be maneuvered into a situation where you are participating virtually to a negotiation while most of the other stakeholders are face-to-face. There are several escape roots. Postpone the meeting until you can be present. Or, make the meeting virtual for all participants. With modern tools like Zoom, Teams etc. you can be better off with a “pure virtual” meeting: better sound quality if people use professional headphones, the speakers clearly appear on the screen, no imbalance between counterparts etc. If you can’t avoid it, control the situation by following our recommendations above.

We hope this article is interesting for you and would appreciate if you share your own experience in the comments area below.

About AfiTaC

AfiTaC.com is the blog on commercial and contractual subjects for the Project Businesses (Construction, Infrastructure, Oil & Gas, Power & Renewable, Water Supply & Sanitation, etc). Its objective is to stimulate reflection, learning, convergence to balanced contracts and positive dispute resolution. You can subscribe to our newsletter by writing to “newsletter@afitac.com”. You can also connect to our LinkedIn page. Engagement with the readers is what keeps us going. So, don’t hesitate to exchange with us by commenting here below, liking our publication on LinkedIn and writing to us “info@afitac.com”. 

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