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Tripping hazard or magic bullet? Digital negotiations via email

Communications are shifting more and more into the digital world. Negotiations, too, are increasingly conducted by email. Many people find it easier to put their arguments in writing rather than in face-to-face, especially if it is emotionally charged. But do digital negotiations really improve the chances of success?

Emails have become an integral part of everyday business life. The flood of emails and the growing demand to be reachable at all times not only affect how often we communicate, but also how we communicate. Instead of arranging a personal meeting, we tend to write a quick email. Especially when it comes to unpleasant topics, many shy away from direct contact and chose a digital way of communicating. And why not, the supposed advantages are obvious: you can take your time to formulate your arguments, you don’t have to react immediately, instead you can think about your answer without allowing emotions to get in the way. It is actually the ideal starting point for resolving a conflict, and thus also for negotiations per se, isn’t it? Wrong! In fact, communicating via email has exactly the opposite effect in negotiation situations.

Forget about arguments – tactical empathy is the true key to a successful negotiation

To believe that negotiations can be won by merely convincing arguments is wrong. Arguments first and foremost serve to convince ourselves but not our opposite numbers. In worst case scenarios, arguments even act as true negotiation killers. In my interview with Deutschlandfunk Kultur I recently explained in detail why this is the case. One reason is that the decision as to whether or not a negotiation will be successful has often already been made before the negotiation has even begun. The decisive factor is the ability to build up a sustainable relationship with the other person and thus to control him or her. Such a professional relationship building is called “tactical empathy”. Tactical Empathy consists of a series of tools used to build up a so-called rapport. This is crucial because people with a strong rapport tend to assess each other more positively, trust each other more and perceive what is said less critically. In negotiations I need to build a relationship based on trust in order to convince my opposite number, to believe my words, to drill into his or her world of thoughts and to apply my strategy purposefully. And above all, I need a rapport to get my opposite number involved in my arguments at all. In other words: a sustainable rapport increases my chances of success. This applies to the conclusion of a contract as well as to negotiations by email. And because of that, they often end up going nowhere.

No rapport without emotions

Building a relationship doesn’t mean that I have to make friends with every negotiating partner. Rather, the rapport can also be encouraged with the help of certain negotiation tactics. Presenting them in detail would go too far at this point (for more information, see my recent book “Das FBI-Prinzip”). However, what is crucial in regards to the email dilemma is that the building of relationships or the creation of sympathy is always accompanied by emotions. More precisely by the ability to (correctly) perceive, understand and influence one’s own feelings and those of others. This is called emotional intelligence (EQ). Yet, this is exactly what is about to be lost more and more in digital communication. Emotions can be recognized mainly by non-verbal signals such as voice pitch or facial expression: a tremor in the voice can be a sign of nervousness, narrowed eyes a sign of anger, etc. All those signs constitute important emotional information for negotiations. Information that can easily get lost in emails since feelings are often between the lines rather than in them. This applies in particular to the professional context, in which emotions are generally frowned upon and have no place in professional digital correspondence.

Emotional incompetence especially inherent in emails

To summarize briefly: Negotiations by email suggest higher chances of success due to the fact that emotions can be suppressed more easily than with other forms of communication such as personal one-on-one conversations or telephone calls. In reality, however, this increases the very risk of failure because the absence of non-verbal signals in emails makes it more difficult to build a relationship as the basis for a successful negotiation. In addition, there also seems to be a lack of ability to correctly interpret the emotions that are conveyed by email. Researchers at New York University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that people overestimate both the recipient’s ability to correctly interpret the emotional tone (sarcasm, humor, etc.) of an email and their own ability to accurately convey an emotional tone via email.

Emojis as tools for negotiation?

The problem of not showing emotions in digital communication is not new. Instead it has paved the way for one of the most characteristic phenomena of our time: emojis. Since WhatsApp at the latest, everyone knows the monkey, who keeps his eyes closed, or the so-called “tears of joy”-emoji. The latter was even named “Word of the Year 2015” by the Oxford Dictionaries and also Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon by dedicating its own feature film to the well-known pictograms. Some observers speak of the triumphal procession of the emojis. But whether they can also lead to a triumph in email-negotiations remains a debatable point. First, it is questionable whether they can adequately replace the missing non-verbal signals. An essential prerequisite would be an unambiguous and universal understanding of each emojis’ meaning comparable to the mimic recognition characteristics of the cross-cultural basic emotions fear, surprise, anger, disgust, contempt, grief and joy. Moreover, a recent study called “The Dark Side of a Smiley” suggests that emojis even have a negative effect, especially in a professional context, for they are interpreted as signs of incompetence and unprofessionalism.


Emotions play a major role for the success or failure of a negotiation. Anyone who gives free rein to his or her feelings runs the risk of damaging the relationship with the other party and thus also to the success of the negotiation. On the other hand, if you manage to control and steer not only your own emotions but also those of your opposite number, you will hold a magic bullet. By choosing to negotiate via email, however, you let this direct control slip away all too easily. Because the non-verbal signals that are so critical to success, including those in cases of uncertainty and deception, are more difficult to recognize and also more difficult to use strategically in emails. Emojis won’t change that. An emoji cannot replace a genuine smile, just as an email cannot replace a real one-to-one conversation. It is no coincidence that important negotiations continue to take place at the round table and behind closed doors.

Thorsten Hofmann, C4 Institute, Quadriga University Berlin

Thorsten Hofmann leads the CfN (Center for Negotiation) at the Quadriga University Berlin’s Institute for Crisis, Change and Conflict Communication C4. He is an internationally certified Negotiation Trainer and advises corporations and organisations in complex negotiation processes.