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The Power of Small Talk

By Joelle Miller Keoghan

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For years, anecdotal experience has highlighted to importance of climate setting, an informal period of small talk that occurs prior to initiating the negotiation process. Practitioners have long argued that climate setting is a step that establishes initial trust and sets tone for the entire negotiation.

However, how important can this brief exchange of lighthearted pleasantries be? Given our hectic lives and schedules, wouldn’t this time be more efficiently utilized getting right down to business? And what about negotiations that are largely conducted via electronic media where negotiators are possibly thousands of miles away from each other, have never met and barely know each other? Where does climate setting or small talk fit into these types of negotiations and how can it possibly be accomplished? (For the purpose of this article we will use the terms climate setting and small talk interchangeability.)

We can answer these questions by examining three recent studies that illustrate the crucial role small talk can play in the context of email negotiations. The research together collectively highlights the impact of small talk, explains why it is so effective, and provides simple mechanisms by which to achieve it.

Description of the Studies:

Study One: “Long and Short Routes to Success in Electronically Mediated Negotiations: Group Affiliations and Good Vibrations.”1

The first study explored mechanisms negotiators could use to enhance the trust and rapport that naturally grows between participants in face-to-face negotiations but can be absent from email negotiations.2  In the experiment, participants negotiated exclusively via email. Half were assigned a counterpart from the same business school (in-group), while the other half was paired with a counterpart from a different business school (out-group). Half of each of these two groups exchanged photographs as well as biographies and conducted a brief “getting to know you” conversation via email before negotiating,3  while the other half of each group did not.

1 Moore, D.A., Kurtzberg, T.R., Thompson, L., & Morris, M.W. (1999). “Long and Short Routes to Success in Electronically Mediated Negotiations: Group Affiliations and Good Vibrations.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 77, 22-43

2 For a comprehensive discussion regarding the impact of information technology upon communication in general and negotiation processes specifically see Janice Nadler and Donna Shestowsky, “Chapter 8: Negotiation, Information Technology, and the Problem of the Faceless Other.” They argue that information technology provides an “impoverished” form of communication, lacking essential nonverbal cues and social interactions present in face-to-face negotiation. However, its impact is mitigated by certain contextual variables including the parties’ sense of shared identity, perceptions of one another, identifiabilty, pre-existing relationships and the subject of the negotiation.

3  Authors of the research studies used various terms such as “schmoozing,” “social lubrication,” “small talk,” etc. However, the author of this article has decided to use the term “climate setting” to eliminate any confusion that might arise from the various terms existing to describe brief pre-negotiation interactions structured to establish personal exchange.

The Power of Small Talk By Joelle Miller Keoghan


Copyright ©2014 Asherman Associates, Inc.
Copyright ©   2014  The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  April 2014