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The holy grail of virtual diplomacy: how to achieve trust

The ‘Great Move’ to communication in the virtual world has been underway for some time. Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have switched to the medium of a screen, raising questions as to what is lost and what is gained. This is of critical importance to the humanitarian sector, especially when carrying out negotiations which can have a life or death impact.

At the heart of any negotiation is how to attain sufficient trust between the parties. But how do you build trust in a virtual environment? Following their first post on influence and persuasion in the virtual world, ICRC diplomatic advisers Nicholas Hawton and Shahrokh Shakerian now look to the issue of building trust in virtual diplomacy and humanitarian negotiations.

‘Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust’. So goes the famous maxim by Albert Einstein, one that rings as true today as it did in the millennia before he made the observation. In a world which has seen a dramatic increase in virtual communication during the past few years, however, the whole issue of trust has taken on a new dimension in both our private and professional lives.

In the humanitarian field, physical proximity to those in need is part of the DNA. Being present on the ground not only enables practical humanitarian work to be carried out; it helps build the prerequisite knowledge and trust with beneficiaries and authorities alike. But with virtual diplomacy here to stay, it is essential for humanitarians to learn the issues, skills and implications of it. The stakes are high: negotiating access to a besieged town, arranging the logistics of a prisoner exchange, discussing a sensitive report on the conduct of hostilities – all  issues that may now have to be discussed through a screen, and lives can depend on whether that screen engagement is successful or not.

The virtual environment offers unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to building trust, from the challenges in handling the technologies involved in using the various platforms to the issues involving security and data protection, as well as the difficulties of reading non-verbal cues. Under these circumstances, finding a productive connection between interlocutors in a diplomatic environment becomes difficult, yet trust remains the essential ingredient when engaging in negotiations.

Zooming and green-screening                         

‘Negotiation’ is the process of interdependent communication between parties who intend to get the best result out of a situation resulting from their different interests, objectives and values. Successful negotiations usually entail parties finding a common analysis of a particular problem, innovative solutions when the issues become complicated, and a sense that there is some form of ultimate accountability (i.e. those involved will assume the responsibility and consequences of their own promises and actions). All these elements are turbo-charged by the existence of trust between parties.

A whole set of issues need to be considered when comparing the negotiation environment in the ‘real’ world to that of the ‘virtual’ world. For instance, common standards and protocols built up over decades of experience simply does not exist in the virtual environments of Zoom and Teams, of ‘sharing’ buttons, green screens and the rest. We are starting, virtually (as it were) from scratch. While one-to-one protocol is challenging, it is even more difficult to achieve a sense of community, shaped around a common goal and which generates a positive negotiating environment.

Trust is also traditionally built up by sharing of information, quid pro quo. But, again in the virtual environment, one can ask to what extent it is safe to share intel, and who exactly has access to the information. Linked to this is the whole issue of ‘recording’ meetings in the virtual world, something that is becoming standard practice. Recording can help perhaps in the short term, encouraging those present to be truthful and accountable but, in the longer term, negotiators may feel inhibited to share information, knowing it is all being recorded and could come back to bite.

While the above represent some trust challenges in the field of virtual negotiations, there are also potential benefits. Active dialogue between parties through for instance, questions and answers, is a means of building trust as one’s position and interests become clearer. Doing this in a virtual environment can sometimes be easier and with less pressure. This can increase an individual’s self-confidence in virtual negotiation. The more self-confidence a negotiator has, the more actively they get involved in the confidence-building process.

Maximizing trust, virtually

At the heart of the matter is the existence or otherwise of trust. This is the golden ingredient of any negotiation, one that is nurtured in a number of ways. Most importantly, it flourishes when the behaviour of parties is predictable and consistent: governed by a set of common principles and standards that everyone signs up for; promises kept; common ground established; and parties behaving in a credible way.

In face-to-face diplomatic conversation, verbal and non-verbal cues including eye contact can help to get an initial assessment of the other party’s trustworthiness. The longer a negotiation lasts, the importance of such signs decreases. Thereafter, trustworthiness of negotiators is judged based upon on their predictability and consistency of their words and actions. Due to the lack of non-verbal cues in virtual negotiations, the essential elements of a healthy diplomatic dialogue and interaction like consistency between words and actions or positions and interest are judged much sooner.

Few would argue that the virtual environment is conducive to building human relations. Generally speaking, this is true. But as we all gradually become more adept at using these platforms, more comfortable with the controls, more familiar with observing our interlocutors through the screen, we are likely to become better ‘readers’ of the ‘other’. Most of the non-verbal cues may have gone, but eye contact usually remains, as well as the tone of voice, pauses, smiles and other facial expressions: these all still exist. We will become better at reading them as our experience increases and the technology develops. We will know how to engage, how to make connections, what works and what doesn’t. Most of us have now been in the ‘break-out’ rooms where smaller groups get to know each other more, relax more, engage more. From these small beginnings, networking and relationships can begin. It’s a question of time and a familiarity with this new space and the parameters we are working within.

The more you know someone the more likely it is you can trust them – or not. Virtual diplomacy cannot be seen in the form of a single engagement. It needs to be seen in a wider context where ‘time’ is given to build. Prior to virtual engagement, have there been physical meetings or emails or phone or video conversations? All these actions help to build the ‘trust knowledge’. Once talks or negotiations are over in the virtual environment, other means of communication should be pursued, again, with the intention of learning more and knowing where to place the trust cursor.

Creating a sense of immediacy also enhances the building of trust. The virtual environment facilitates synchronous communication: it is the here and now and there is no delay as in the case with, for instance, email. Generally speaking, the immediacy of engagement provides less room for manipulation: everything is ‘transparent’ and there is a natural flow to communication which engenders a feeling of trust. This cannot be replicated perfectly in the virtual world, but it is heading more and more in that direction.

Not an end in itself

In diplomatic engagement – and especially negotiations – real, as opposed to virtual, presence is the preferred option. But it’s worth noting that there are occasions when virtual engagement may be better. For instance, in sensitive and highly controversial discussions, a more gradual approach to building up trust, at least at some levels, might be more profitable and less fraught with risk – at least in the short term.

How trust is built up does not change in its fundamentals when we switch from an in-person to a virtual environment, but we need to tweak and adjust our behaviour and start working towards a common set of ethical standards. Achieving ‘trust’ is not an end in itself. But it is the prerequisite to having successful negotiations, to influencing and persuading other parties and, in humanitarian terms, to achieving goals which can and do involve providing support for those most in need.

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