Delayed response: Replying to emails sluggishly but strategically

I have to admit it: I am a compulsive email replier. I feel the acute need to reply almost immediately to every email I receive. Unfortunately, this tendency is not always helpful, particularly in the context of an email negotiation. Indeed, sending a delayed reply, uncomfortable as it may be, can help negotiators in many situations claim value, thereby making life more negotiable.

So let’s examine what those situations might be. Consider the following five moments in an email negotiation that might call for a delayed reply:

  1. When they act inappropriately. It’s a hard fact of life: Negotiators sometimes act inappropriately. They make demands that are not just aggressive but uncalled for. They try to intimidate you. They break social conventions if not overt rules or laws. In these cases, a delayed response (perhaps a permanent delay) may be best, as it signals your reaction without drawing you into the downward spiral likely to ensue if you take the bait.
  2. When you want them to concede. More commonly, negotiators make requests that are not necessarily inappropriate but are also nowhere near the terms you deserve or need to reach a deal. You ask a service provider to match a $1000 discount offered by another provider and they offer a $25 gift card to the jelly-of-the-month club. In these cases, your silence may make them just uncomfortable enough to prompt an unsolicited additional concession.
  3. When you want someone else to weigh in. The email negotiations we all face in the workplace often involve multiple people. You are just one of the 12 people CC’ed on a message and eventually expected to reply. But wouldn’t it be helpful if someone else weighed in first—an ally, perhaps, or even your boss? A delayed reply can often create the space for someone else to speak first, which can often bolster your case.
  4. When you want to signal your alternatives. Particularly when you’re buying something big (e.g., a new kitchen, car, or landscaping service), you need to get multiple bids. In part, these bids help you learn and compare. In part, they help you gain leverage and convince each seller to put their best price forward. But the latter only happens if a seller suspects you’ll compare their price. Hence the need to signal that you’re obtaining multiple bids. Many sellers who send quotes and then receive delayed replies are sophisticated enough to intuit the reason.
  5. When you want to signal you’re in no particular rush. Alternatively, you might want to signal you’re in no particular rush to purchase a particular good or service. This approach is particularly useful for goods and services that most people buy in a moment of desperation—roofs, basement waterproofing solutions, and air conditioners, for example. Unlike most customers, who probably reply to such sellers within seconds, your delayed reply can convince them to cut the common sales tactics and focus on offering something competitive.

In sum, silence is aversive for many of us, in email or in person But temporary silence in the form of a delayed reply can also be wise in the context of an email negotiation, particularly for the purpose of claiming value. With that, let me silence myself…

Coalitions with co-travelers: Making delays negotiable

I’ve experienced a lot of flight delays, but never arrived at an airport seven hours before a delayed flight departed. Such was the case on a recent trip from St. Louis to Baltimore. Thanks to some substantial snowfall somewhere else, the plane that was supposed to return me to Baltimore was arriving in St. Louis two hours from 6 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm, 9, and 10 pm. Thanks, snow.

Clearing security at about 5 pm and receiving an email about the impending delay, I held out the distinct hope that this situation could be averted by standing by on an earlier flight that departed around 5:20. At the desk for that flight, however, I encountered another traveler from my own delayed flight trying every tactic in the book. “Can I pay you some money to get on the earlier flight?” she asked the agent. “Let me tell you why I need to be in Baltimore right away.” “My boyfriend is gonna be so sad!” Ten minutes later, seeing the conversation continuing, the agent growing beleaguered, the earlier flight boarded, and my own chances of getting on it falling by the minute, I realized that I had to break up this conversation to make life negotiable.

So what could I do? Well, I could’ve gotten angry at the annoying traveler or interrupted the conversation rudely, asking whether she was planning on letting anyone else talk to the agent ever. In other words, I could’ve formed a coalition with the Southwest agent, teaming up against the annoying traveler to make both of our lives more negotiable. But would that’ve gotten me on the flight? Probably not, as the traveler would’ve trained her monologue on me, delaying us all a lot longer.

So instead of forming a coalition with the agent, I thought, I need to form a coalition with the annoying traveler. Only by aligning myself with the force interfering with my goal could I hold out any hope of attaining it. And that is what I did. “Oh, are you on the delayed flight to Baltimore too?” I asked her, knowing full-well that she was. “Yes,” she opined woefully, “you too?” “Yes,” I opined in return. And then seized the opportunity, albeit brief, to address the agent: “May I get on the waitlist too?” And thus I did.

Now, full disclosure, getting on the waitlist did absolutely no good whatsoever. There was one seat available on the earlier flight, meaning that lucky #6 on the standby list (Mr. Gunia / BC) did not quite make it. (Nor did annoying #5). Still, had there been six seats available, this tactic of forming a coalition with the disputant rather than going to war with her—well, it would’ve paid off in spades. So I still think it’s worth recommending as a means of making life negotiable.

When we have to negotiate with multiple parties, we’re usually tempted to join forces with the person who seems most supportive—in this case, the friendly Southwest agent. By doing that, we think, we’ll be able to overpower any annoying impediments. In fact, when we do that, the annoying impediments often take exception, trying everything in their power to stymie our aspirations. So, assuming we have a serious but not a mortal difference of opinion with the people standing in our way, it’s often more effective to form a coalition with them. By doing that—by expressing empathy with another passenger’s plight, for example—we can often flip them from adversaries to supporters, or at least to less serious impediments.

With the airlines, it often seems that few tactics can make life negotiable. But forming a coalition with the co-passengers impeding us is one tactic worth a try, to practice our negotiation skills if not to arrive in Baltimore any sooner.