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Leverage Body Language Knowledge in Negotiations



You’re in a business meeting. Sales managers, executives and shareholders are sitting around the conference table. Three are presenting their ideas to boost the organization’s sagging sales.


The first speaker approaches the podium. His shoulders are slumped, and his head is down. He rarely makes eye contact, speaking very softly in a monotone voice as he details his proposal to boost sales. His arms stay at his sides, and he pauses for long periods of time between thoughts. Upon completion of his presentation, he gathers up his papers and silently shuffles back to his seat.


The next speaker is very high strung, talking loudly and rapidly. He rarely takes a breath between ideas. Gesturing wildly with his hands, he paces back and forth. Though he looks at his audience, he doesn’t actually make any eye contact with them. When two people pose questions to him, the speaker nods his head continuously and says, “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” before interrupting them with his response. A third person raises their hand, but the speaker abruptly collects his papers, saying “thanks” as he heads back to his seat. He lets out a long and pronounced sigh.


The final presenter steps up. She greets her audience with a smile that crinkles the corner of her eyes and says,“Good morning! I appreciate the opportunity to present my ideas. More importantly, I welcome your feedback.” She speaks in a calm, confident tone, accentuating specific words and phrases. She pauses ever so briefly to underscore a point or transition to the next idea. Her posture is straight but relaxed. She occasionally holds up her slightly cupped hands, palms facing one another, to emphasize a point. She makes warm, genuine eye contact with a few audience members. Once or twice, she walks out from behind the podium to discuss a specific strategy. When she’s finished, she thanks her audience and asks them if they have any questions. One or two query her. She listens patiently, nodding once or twice. She then says, “So if I understand correctly, Bob, you’re concerned with the new sales structure timeline. Is that right?” Then she answers the question with composure, clarity and eloquence.


It’s no surprise which speaker presented the most convincing argument for their plan. But was it purely the content of her presentation, or did other factors influence the audience’s receptiveness?



Strategy Is Just One Component of Negotiations


You can have the most brilliant strategy in place. However, people are very visual animals, observing and absorbing your body language as much as they are your words. Just as they are using body language to size up others, you can leverage your knowledge of it to enhance your own negotiation skills.


The combined data from two research studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian (one with Morton Wiener and the other with Susan Ferris, both in 1967) resulted in the 55/38/7 theory. It argues that communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% actual spoken words. Though this theory has been debated for ages, it does highlight the importance of good communication in all of its forms.


Understanding how body language can be interpreted and how it can influence your negotiations is just as important as your objectives and strategy. Once you have a good understanding of how to read it in others and use it yourself to communicate effectively, your negotiations will have more successful outcomes. Let’s explore these behaviors and how they may be interpreted:

  • Mirroring: Have you ever met someone and just clicked? Within minutes of meeting them, you notice that you are mirroring a lot of their expressions, the tone of their voice, and even their gestures. Whether you realized it or not, mirroring is one way that people build rapport and trust. It puts people at ease. Caveat: Make sure that you are genuinely mirroring. Copying someone’s gestures, expressions and tone robotically is just plain creepy and likely will have an adverse effect. If they are minimally expressive, exhibit the same. If they are more gregarious, you can match that level of expression. Doing the opposite in these scenarios can appear aggressive or too closed off, respectively. The idea is to be natural, while paying attention to their body language and reacting accordingly. As you know from previous blogs, putting your counterpart at ease will help the discovery process and, ultimately, the negotiation.

  • Matching words with body language: It’s important to watch the body language while listening to the words. There can be very subtle clues that can indicate a discrepancy between what is being said and the person’s body language.

A good example is from a retirement party that I attended. This gentleman, who was retiring, wasn’t happy with the way the organization was being managed. During his toast, he wished those running the company continued success. However, I noticed that he shrugged one of his shoulders, not just once but twice. It was ever so slight but a clear indication that what he was saying didn’t necessarily match what he was feeling.


Most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it. However, if you understand body language, you would have picked up on this incongruence. The same is true in negotiations. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll pick up on hidden clues in your counterpart. Interestingly, body language can be subconscious. The person exhibiting these clues often doesn’t realize that they are betraying their true feelings.


Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed it best when he wrote, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” In this scenario and similar cases, you can’t assume that a person’s words are the truth, especially if their body language contradicts them. If that’s the case, you need to dig deeper to clarify. Doing so will lead to greater discovery and the opportunity to not only verify the truth but to rectify the underlying problem. Keep in mind that misaligned body language and words do not necessarily mean the person is lying either. It could just be that they are fearful of or uncomfortable with expressing their true feelings.

  • The Face: If you know what to look for, the face reveals so much. Micro-expressions – a fleeting look (like blushing or a grimace) that exposes a person’s true feelings – can be very telling. It’s said that a person who touches their nose or covers their mouth when speaking is lying. Nodding is another indicator of truthfulness. Did you ever watch a Dateline episode where they ask the suspect if he or she committed the crime? The suspect immediately says “no,” but his or her head is actually nodding in agreement (a yes). Sometimes the opposite happens. Do you love me? “Yes,” the person says but their head is shaking “no”. This action is called incongruence. Additionally, frowning can be construed as disapproval. Holding your chin too high can appear condescending. Another tool to read facial language is asymmetry. If someone is covertly contemptuous, they will snear. Their lips will be closed but upturned or downturned on just one side. Think of it as the human form of a dog’s snarl.

  • The Eyes: Those who avoid eye contact are considered dishonest. Stare too intently and you’ll be seen as aggressive or threatening. Similarly, those who maintain too much contact may do so intentionally. It’s a tactic to convince you that they are not lying, even though that’s precisely what they’re doing. Blinking a lot can be a sign of deception. Occasionally looking away is acceptable, since it could mean you’re thinking or considering something. It also is a way to detach from the world. Moderation is key in eye contact. It shouldn’t be too little or too much. It also depends on the talker. If you’re the one doing the talking, looking away briefly and then making eye contact again is fine. However, if you are the listener and looking away, it could signal disinterest. Watch your counterpart’s inner canthus/lacrimal caruncle (caruncula lacrimalis) as well. It’s the small, pink, globular nodule in the inner corner of the eye - the skin covering the sebaceous and sweat glands. When someone distrusts you or is skeptical, it will typically be hidden. It also hides when we squint or crinkle our nose/close our eyes when we smell something foul. Avoid asking for an agreement on anything from one whose inner canthus is hidden.

  • Your Handshake: Shaking someone’s hand can tell you a lot about the person. A wimpy or “wet noodle” handshake can convey weakness or apathy. One that feels like it could break all of the bones in your hand can be perceived as domineering or a power move. It might even seem like you’re trying to overcompensate. Trendy handshakes like a fist bump come off as immature and unprofessional. A person who shakes your hand but won’t make eye contact falls into the incongruence category. An extremely quick handshake says indifference, or “I don’t have time for this right now”. The person who won’t let go of your hand after more than the appropriate amount of time can be read as either desperate or a making a power play. If one’s palm is down when going in for a handshake, it conveys dominance. Conversely, one with a palm up in a handshake indicates submission. For more parity in a handshake, go for palms sideways and facing one another. Thumbs should be pointed skyward and pinkies aligned with the fingers above it. You should extend your hand/arm from waist level, elbows relaxed to exude confidence and respect for your counterpart. This posture also engenders trust.

  • The Body: As noted in the first speaker example, shuffling feet and slumped shoulders appear weak. Gesticulating can make someone seem erratic or overly dramatic. Standing over someone is threatening or domineering. Pointing with your index finger elicits the same feelings. Standing too close to someone is not only an invasion of their personal space but can be taken as a physical act of intimidation. Arms and legs crossed will let someone know that you are closed off to what they are saying. Moreover, open body language (posture straight but relaxed, hands open/palms facing upward, moderate eye contact) encourage respect and equality for your counterpart, paving the way for trust. Closed body language (limited eye contact, arms crossed, legs turned away, hidden inner canthus) subliminally suggest a fight or flight response, most likely creating a barrier between you and your counterpart.

So how should you present yourself in the best possible light? What characteristics in another will engender trust during the negotiation process? Consider the following:

  • Stand tall but relaxed.

  • Make frequent eye contact without being creepy.

  • Tilt your head slightly to the side. It indicates that you’re interested. Women frequently use this submissive gesture when they’re in the company of someone they like or are simply interested in the conversation. Tilting the head exposes the carotid artery in the neck. In addition to signaling submission, it can reveal one’s vulnerability.

  • Nod occasionally to indicate that you’re listening.

  • Be like Goldilocks and look for just the right handshake – not bone-crushing but not a wet noodle – not too short or too long – somewhere in between.

  • Keep hand gestures to a minimum and open, not closed or clenched. Avoid pointing. Use the steeple pose (fingertips facing and touching one another) to emphasize confidence. Palms open to convey honesty.

  • Respect your counterpart’s personal space.

  • Match your counterpart’s expressions, gestures and tone authentically and naturally, not robotically.

  • Keep arms and legs uncrossed to indicate openness.

  • Use a calm, confident tone in a lower octave.

  • Make sure your words match your actions.


Your Turn…


How has body language affected your negotiations? Did your counterpart’s body language in a negotiation affect you one way or another?

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