Once upon a time, negotiation was something you did face to face with your counterparty. It may have occurred on the golf course, in the bar over a beer, or in a meeting room over coffee. Relationships were forged, anecdotes shared and deals done.

These days, you’re lucky if you ever get to meet your counterparty face to face. With business becoming increasingly global, your clients and suppliers may be located anywhere in the world – and travelling to meet is a luxury few can justify. So how do you build the relationships that you need, to help you negotiate deals that deliver?

Anonymity – a blessing and a curse

If you and I were to meet, we would immediately begin to form impressions of each other. Based on how I look, dress, speak and act, you would draw conclusions about my age, gender, social class, ethnic and cultural background, status and education. And, whether you realised it or not, all of that information would impact the way you responded to my negotiation approach.

When our interactions are electronic, less of this information is immediately available to you. One delegate on my Advanced Negotiation Masterclass shared the story of how he and his overseas supplier built up a strong email relationship, around their shared love of rugby. This enabled them to negotiate collaboratively and effectively together. It was only when they spoke on the telephone for the first time that he realised his supplier was female. When we negotiate internationally, things like our name will communicate less – or different  –  information than they might do on home turf.

So negotiating by email enables you to control how you appear to your counterparty to a far greater extent. Email negotiators can choose to elevate their status by giving themselves important-sounding job titles. Or to keep you guessing by omitting their email signature. This makes email a great leveller, diminishing differences that could lead to unconscious bias in face to face negotiations.

Building rapport

A key step in every negotiation is building rapport with your counterparty, finding areas of common ground. As our rugby-loving delegate demonstrated, shared interest can help you develop a strong relationship that facilitates effective negotiation.

While this is easily done over coffee at the start of a meeting, it’s harder when communicating by email. But don’t let that put you off. Particularly in the early stages of your communication, open with a warm greeting and some information that allows your counterparty to get to know you a little better, or invites them to share something about themselves.

If your tone is engaging and friendly, your counterparty is more likely to respond in kind.

Be aware, though, that an abrupt and brief writing style does not necessarily mean your counterparty is grumpy or unfriendly. I have one client who communicates in the briefest of terms. A typical email will contain no greeting, no signature and perhaps half a dozen words of content. In person, she is friendly and charming – something that would not have been obvious from her writing style.

Setting expectations

When you send an email setting out your position on a particular matter in a negotiation, and receive no response for days, how do you feel? Email creates a tendency to ‘negative attribution’, where we attribute negative reasons to possibly benign behaviours.

If I don’t hear back from you, I may feel that my email has offended you. Or that I have asked for something difficult for your organisation to provide. Or that my clever rebuttal of your points has ‘put the cat among the pigeons’, causing much debate and excitement in your company as you try to work out the best way to respond.

Of course, it may be that my email went astray, or that you are simply overloaded and have not had time to respond. To get the best from email negotiations, set expectations about how quickly you will respond. That way, your counterparty won’t be working themselves into a frenzy because you were unable to respond the same day.

Discuss, organise, review

While those who are comfortable ‘thinking on their feet’ will enjoy the adrenaline rush of a face to face negotiation, this is not without its problems. Negotiating on the go can result in poorly thought through concessions, failure to obtain stakeholder buy-in and over exposure to risk.

When negotiating by email, take advantage of the opportunity to carefully consider all your options and their potential consequences. Discuss them with colleagues. Structure your thoughts to present a clear and logical flow, linking related requests and potential concessions tightly.

As well as reviewing your draft yourself, run it past a colleague who has not been involved in the negotiation. How would they interpret your words? Does your tone invite collaboration or cause offence? Is it clear what you are asking for, and offering in return?


Negotiation emails can become long, so the reader suffers ‘information overload’ and reaches the end without knowing what you expect from them next. You’ll have experienced this when you email someone asking a number of questions, and receive an answer only to the last one!

So at the end of a long email, summarise your points clearly. Set out the actions you require of the other party and suggest timescales for completion.

Go forth and negotiate

Becoming an effective negotiator is not an overnight process, and engaging effectively with the different media at your disposal is just one of the tools in your toolkit. Use these tips to develop your email negotiation skills. Try out different approaches and see how your counterparty responds.

Find out more about becoming a better negotiator at Devant, a specialist commercial contracts consultancy.