Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 251
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Don't Use the Telephone!

New research reveals the weakness of using the phone to try to reach agreements.

Have you ever had a person go stupid on you during a phone conversation? You're trying to come to some agreement, and you're making progress, then the other person says something that tells you that you lost him. He isn't following your logic, and his comment makes no sense.

When this happens, you're not sure what to say, so you back up and start again, but it soon becomes hopeless and you end the conversation. You may not make another call all day.

If you've ever found yourself in this situation, recent research by Kathleen McGinn, of Harvard University should interest you. She learned that telephone conversations are inherently inferior methods of communication when agreements are sought, and she learned three techniques people use to try to salvage phone conversations that are going badly.

Professor McGinn studied the behavior of 87 pairs of people as they completed a simple bargaining task. Some of these pairs were friends, some were strangers. Some met face-to-face, and some talked on the phone.

She gave them a financial stake in the agreements they made, and this added a realistic element to the experiment. She wanted to discover the different ways people come to agreements, but she found more than she was looking for.

In the first few moments of the conversations she studied, people signaled to each other a set of expectations for the conversations that were to follow. Like deciding whether to do the waltz or the fox trot, people quickly came to agreement and then matched their comments to each other like dance steps. They quickly agree, that is, unless they were talking on the phone.

When strangers tried to begin conversations on the phone, 71% of the time they failed to establish agreement on how their conversation would proceed. They couldn't agree what dance they were going to do.

This lack of agreement frustrated their desire to seriously discuss the task Ms. McGinn had given them, but rather than just give up, they tried to salvage their conversations, and they used specific salvage strategies in this effort. Professor McGinn described three of them.

The first she called process clarification. With this strategy, one person asked explicit questions of the other about the rules of interaction they were going to follow. Here's an example:

Seller: "We're talking about the lamp, right? Shouldn't we just disclose how much . . . "

Buyer: "I don't know how . . . to work this."

Seller: "Well, the object as far as I'm concerned is for us both to make a profit."

With process clarification, the parties explicitly explore how they will discuss the task facing them to come to an agreement. Unfortunately, she found that it tended to increase competition between the parties.

The second, she called trust testing, which includes two behaviors: 1) one person questions the truthfulness of information the other person has supplied, and 2) one person makes small moves that reveal his/her own trustfulness and then watches the response of the other person.

Trust testing sometimes helped, but more often, it did not. The other person failed the trust test, and they were unable to proceed. Being unable to proceed, they failed in the task Ms. McGinn had given them, they reached no agreement, and they had no money to split at the end of the experiment.

The third strategy she called emotional punctuation. This strategy is an abrupt display of strong emotion, positive or negative, in which one person, in frustration, becomes noticeably dissatisfied with the way the conversation is going and emotionally tosses it out. It's a crucial moment for the other person. If he/she fails to adjust, there will be no agreement. Here's an example:

Seller: "I'm being very frank with you and I hate people not to be frank with me . . . At the beginning I was just asking for your price and you were doing all this calculation . . . so I'd rather forego my profit than be called a fool."

In this example, the seller clearly wants the buyer to consider profit for both parties, not just his own profit. If he does so, then the discussion can continue.

When you find yourself on the phone with a stranger trying to make some agreement, be alert to these salvage strategies, and when you hear them, respond promptly, if you really want an agreement.

Of course, if you really want agreement, you shouldn't be on the phone in the first place. You need to be face to face with the person.

Reference: McGinn, Kathleen, and Angela Keros (2002) Improvisation and the Logic of Exchange in Socially embedded Transactions. Administrative Science Quarterly, September, 442-472.

© Management Resources

Back to home page