Good negotiators always plan ahead by setting target and fallback positions, pre-empting the other party’s manoeuvres, determining roles and timing concessions appropriately. But the best of them have another key strength: the ability to understand non-verbal gestures. The importance of body language, known as kinesics, is often underestimated because its relevance and complexity are not fully appreciated. We observe and respond to non-verbal gestures a long time before we can understand language, so from an evolutionary perspective we should be well-equipped – and most of us think that such communication is intuitive. However, it is the conscious interpretation and manipulation of body language that can improve our negotiation technique.
Research has captured 135 distinct gestures and expressions, with 80 solely involving the face or head, including nine different ways of smiling. Other studies reveal that what we say only represents 7 per cent of the message, how we say it 35 per cent, and how we look and act 55 per cent.
With such a high proportion of communication being visual, procurement professionals must be able to recognise signals and groups of reinforcing gestures that support or contradict verbal statements, such as nodding, smiling and positive eye contact signifying agreement. Perhaps you have noticed that whenever you ask a question around cost transparency, the supplier coughs and quickly moves on, then reflects upon matters while absentmindedly gnawing their lips, looking all around the room and fidgeting? This group of gestures may make you feel that they lack answers and are feeling exposed and vulnerable. But you can take this a step further.
By making a conscious effort to observe and interpret these signals you can inform and mould your strategies, and improve your effectiveness in negotiations. There are five broad classes of non-verbal communication (posture, body and hand gestures, touching and facial expression) and it’s very difficult to avoid them during a negotiation. People smile, frown, laugh, shift position– at certain times quite erratically and at others in a more measured way. Understanding these cues, both in ourselves and others, helps us to:
- Recognise and detect the difference between the truth and a lie;
- Become more confident in our own abilities;
- Create an environment conducive to concluding the deal and moving the other party towards agreement more quickly;
- Identify warning signals that indicate unreasonable expectations.
It’s important to evaluate your impressions at the outset of the negotiation and monitor them throughout. Those who are receptive and want to achieve a desirable outcome tend to lean into the conversation, whether seated or standing, with open hand gestures. One person may be less forthcoming, protectively folding their arms, taking no notes and avoiding direct eye contact. As the negotiation progresses, however, and concessions are made, their body language may change, becoming more open. They may suddenly start to engage with positive nodding, constructive questioning and a desire for open dialogue. The signal to watch for at this point is a reversion to defensive behaviour, in which case the immediate question should be what went wrong? Did we just ask for something that has broken the trust that we had started to build?
“Mirroring” behaviour often creates more open dialogue. It reinforces a method of persuasion termed the “liking principle”, because mirroring makes the other person feel more comfortable and so generates higher levels of trust. In practice, if one party crosses their legs, the other follows. However, if you find yourself mirroring, don’t suddenly stop because this may send counterproductive signals.
When it comes to initial rapport or clinching the deal, watch out for a move by the seller to get physically closer – known as proxemics (the study of set measurable distances between people as they interact, introduced by anthropologist Edward T Hall in 1966). They will want to make a connection and start relationship building, which can be difficult from opposite sides of the room. So, they may move in, perhaps using product literature or firing up the laptop to jointly review details. According to Hall, there are four distances between people conversing: intimate (physical contact to 45cm), personal (45-120cm), social (120-370cm) and public (370-760cm). This is an area where cultural differences need to be understood: English-speaking people tend to feel awkward when too near to each other, whereas other cultures prefer being very close.
Using body language in negotiations
1) Recognise baseline mannerisms and judge changes from such behaviour. Negotiators tend to put up a façade, so use the selection process and time spent getting to know them to determine what natural tendencies they have and how they normally behave. If their natural style is to be talkative with lots of gesticulation, smiles and a straight posture, showing high energy and confidence, then a sudden change to this may indicate that they are masking something. Also, recognise that other factors may be involved – for example, a person’s posture may simply be about comfort more than anything else.
2) Maintain visual awareness. Avoid the tendency to break eye contact by scrutinising the proposal or other documents provided, because opportunities to spot cues may be missed.
3) Watch for signs of deception. Even skilled negotiators can betray themselves through their body language. If, having asked for clarification to support the price increase, the other party’s shoulders start rising and falling more rapidly, then this could suggest an increased heart rate, which – if also followed by jerky head movements and covering the mouth or touching the side of the nose – may indicate things are not what they seem.
4) Avoid attributing meaning to a singular change in body language. Practise observing body language by watching debates such as BBC’s Question Time or those in the House of Commons. Focus attention on four manageable channels: face and head, arms and hands, torso, and legs and feet. The face is the most expressive part of the body and can convey several emotions simultaneously. Realise that singling out one gesture won’t tell you much, in the same way that isolated statements say little. More can be understood if you look at groups of gestures.
5) Build an ongoing picture from continuous contact. Record the other side’s behaviour as it will prove useful for subsequent negotiation planning. If they usually have their hands out in the open, but then switch in later negotiations to keeping them under the table or slouching with them in their pockets, dynamics may have become too comfortable and there is no real “fear” of losing the business or the need to make the concessions.
6) Be aware of dramatic cultural differences. If you are dealing with people from other cultures, find out how their body language differs from yours
7) Know yourself. Change your own revealing habits, practise desired gestures and get others to give you feedback on whether your intended “signal” was supported by a group of gestures or whether the message became confused. Negotiation results can be enhanced if you use your knowledge of body language to uncover the true messages behind what your opponent is saying, giving you the advantage of pushing, backing off or changing tack where appropriate. By also paying attention to your own non-verbal communication, you can avoid sending unintended signals that will allow your opponent to do the same. Do this and you’re well on your way to becoming a great negotiator.