The Future of Virtual Negotiations

Negotiations have been a cornerstone of diplomacy since its very inception. Historically, Ambassadors to foreign courts held the title of “Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary”. This grandiose title meant that Ambassadors had the authority negotiate and sign treaties on their nation’s behalf. This was necessary due to the technology of the days- letter sent by horseback that would take weeks or months to reach their destinations.

Today, negotiations play an even greater role in diplomacy. In a global world, that faces global challenges, diplomats regularly negotiate international accords. Moreover, the multilateral system is built on negotiations. Everyday, in cities such as Geneva or New York, numerous accords are negotiated at the World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, International Labor Organization and more.  Lastly, global summits have become a permeant fixture of diplomacy with diplomats gathering to negotiate agreements on issues ranging from climate to digital infrastructure and nuclear proliferation. 

When speaking to diplomats, one soon realizes that physical interactions are key to successful negotiations. Indeed, diplomats’ ability to negotiate rests on reading their counterparts’ facial cues, body language as well as diplomats’ ability to read a room or sense changes in mood. Equally important, diplomats rely on hallway conversations and side discussion to steer negotiations in a certain direction and create coalitions in multilateral forums.

This is why Covid19 had an immense impact on diplomats who could no longer physically meet to negotiate agreements. The halls of the UN headquarters in Geneva were closed shut; Embassy staff could no longer gather to prepare negotiations while foreign ministries lay dormant due to quarantines. Faced with lockdowns, social distancing and bans on international travel diplomats followed most professions by embracing virtual platforms such as Zoom.

In a recent study, Prof. Corneliu Bjola and I examined diplomats’ ability to continue negotiations via Zoom. Our results, gathered from surveys sent to 130 diplomats across the world, were surprising in four ways.

First, diplomats attested they could “read” a virtual room. According to diplomats, Zoom allowed them to identify their counterparts body language while also being able to sense the atmosphere in the room thanks to the chat application. Here there is a blending of the new and the old- diplomats deciphered text messages sent in the chat application to detect the atmosphere among their peers.

Second, diplomats highlighted the importance of the mediator or host of the virtual meeting. This is because diplomats had no protocol for virtual meetings. Issues such as order of speakers, the length of interventions and the even the ability to ask questions were all determined by the host or mediator. According to diplomats, good mediation rested on ensuring that all participants remain engaged in the conversation and do no multi task while Zooming.

Third, diplomats stated that trust cannot be built via virtual platforms. Trust, the bedrock of negotiations, demanded physical interactions. Diplomats had to peer into each other’s’ eyes before being able to negotiate. This suggests that diplomatic negotiations that begin offline can migrate online but new negotiations with new counterparts cannot begin online.  

Fourth, a major impediment to online negotiations is what diplomats dubbed as “Zoom fatigue”. Diplomats grew tired online quicker than offline.  Effective negotiations thus rested on brief, yet frequent virtual meetings. This draws out negotiations and diplomats need more time to reach an agreement. 

At a recent conference in Zurich I attended a panel on negotiations in the digital age. Participants included academics, the head of digital diplomacy at the Estonian MFA and an analyst from  McKinsey & Company. They offered additional insights into how negotiations can best be conducted via virtual platforms. Techniques for increasing the efficacy of virtual negotiations include:

1. Pre-defined formats and pre-defined agendas: Both speakers highlighted the fact that virtual negotiations are most effective when all participants are aware of the format meaning the length of time they have to speak, the order of speakers, when questions can be raised, how questions can be raised and who will mediate negotiations. The speaker from McKinsey highlighted the importance of creating a back channel where participants can signal and communicate with the mediator if they wish to raise an issue or comment on things being discussed.

2. Distinguishing between trust in virtual technologies and trust through virtual technologies: Both speakers stated that while trust may not be built through virtual negotiations, participants must have trust in virtual platforms if negotiations are to succeed. For instance, participants must trust that Zoon and the likes cannot record sessions without approval, that virtual meetings cannot be “hacked” and that virtual negotiations will follow existing protocols. Indeed, in our study, Bjola and I postulate that MFAs might now create their own secure, virtual platforms where sensitive topics can be discussed.

3. Random Working Groups: The Estonian speaker stated that virtual negotiations benefit from working in smaller groups, such as breakout rooms in Zoom. This reduces the number of speakers, allow participants to better view one another and cultivates closer working ties. Random working groups also ensure that all participants get to know one another. This can help cement personal ties that are key to successful negotiations.

4. Agreements on Data Sharing: Speakers highlighted the need to agree on data sharing protocols before negations begin. Participants need to know in advance if they can be quoted, if “Chatham House Rules” apply and whether they may discuss negotiations with third parties. Such rules facilitate negotiations as diplomats know what they can and cannot say. This reduces stress and anxiety and actually leads participants to engage more freely in conversation.

Bjola and I concluded that the future of diplomatic negotiations will be hybrid, as negotiations that start offline can migrate online once trust has been established. Yet as this post demonstrates, managing participant expectations, facilitating working ties, creating back channels for communications and agreeing on pre-defined formats and data sharing are essential for hybrid diplomacy to succeed.  

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