Body Language in the Negotiation Process and the Impact of Gender at the Bargaining Table

How important is body language in the negotiation process? Find out what negotiation research says about chatting at the bargaining table during negotiations

By — on / Leadership Skills

negotiation process

How important is body language in the negotiation process? Negotiators are often advised to engage in small talk before getting down to business.  According to negotiation research, it pays to engage with your counterpart at the negotiation table but whether it benefits a negotiator or not might depend on the negotiator’s gender. In her research, for example, Professor Janice Nadler of Northwestern University found that pairs of strangers who engaged in a casual five-minute phone chat before participating in a negotiation simulation via e-mail were four times more likely to reach a beneficial agreement than pairs who didn’t have a chance to chat.

But in a newer negotiation research study, conducted by researchers Alexandra A. Mislin of American University, Brooke A. Shaughnessy of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, and Tanja Hentschel and Claudia Peus of Technische Universität München, only men—and not women—received positive results from chit-chatting with their counterparts.

In the negotiation study, presented at the August 2014 annual meeting of the Academy of Management, participants read a transcript and evaluated a negotiator named either JoAnna or Andrew who either did or did not engage in small talk—about local restaurants and a hometown sports team—before negotiating with a business counterpart for control of a scarce resource.

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

Participants judged Andrew to be more communal and likable when he engaged in small talk before negotiating than when he did not, and the chit-chatting Andrew also was rewarded with better final offers from participants than was the all-business Andrew. JoAnna, on the other hand, was judged the same whether or not she chatted informally with her counterpart, and on a par with the Andrew who didn’t make small talk. Chatty Andrew was the clear winner.

Body Language in the Negotiation Process and Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes and expectations likely explain the results, according to the authors. Because men are generally viewed as less communal, sociable, and concerned about others than women, men who buck the stereotype with small and unexpected communal behaviors, like making small talk, may be rewarded in negotiation. (However, men may be penalized for more significant non-stereotypical behavior, such as staying home with their children.)

Meanwhile, because we tend to expect women to behave communally, we may not punish them for the minor violation of a gender stereotype—electing not to shoot the breeze before negotiating—the authors hypothesize. Women may need to find “other ways than small talk to cultivate a positive regard in their counterparts,” says study author Shaughnessy.

That doesn’t mean that women should assume they have carte blanche to skip the chit-chat. As we all have experienced, in the real world, idle conversation about the weather, sports, and so on can lead to discoveries of commonalities and connection that build bonds for male and female negotiators alike.

What do you think about body language and gender stereotypes at the bargaining table? Leave us a comment.

Related Negotiation Skills Article:  Negotiating Skills and Negotiation Tactics and Body Language in the Negotiation Process: Confront Your Anxiety, Improve Your Results – Body language, or how you comport yourself at the negotiation table, is a negotiating skill and negotiating tactic critical to effective bargaining.

Emotional Intelligence as a Negotiation Skill and Negotiation Tactic – Knowing how to read your counterpart’s emotional responses at and away from the bargaining table may help a negotiator find avenues of the agreement she may have missed if she weren’t so perceptive. Using body language and visual cues, negotiators can not only gauge their counterpart’s emotional temperature but also actively work to curb negative emotions or anything that may hinder agreement. In this article, learn negotiation strategies for dealing with emotions at the bargaining table and learn how to effectively interpret your counterpart’s emotions for better-negotiated agreements.

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

Originally published September 2014.

Related Posts


7 Responses to “Body Language in the Negotiation Process and the Impact of Gender at the Bargaining Table”

  • sophie s.

    Perhaps the negative or neutral impact around the female small talk was more to do with the topics selected for the female to discuss. They are relatively neutral topics (sports/ restaurents) most often associated with male small talk. I purport that in reality small talk often brings more personal topics into the conversation (in female negotiators) to find commonality.Eg “its great to sit down, I have been up all night with the kids / dog” Or “Have you come far? I live quite close / far in x ” By sticking to neutral topics like sport i argue that is a more common male trait (generally speaking) and may be less convincing when a female uses those topics to find common ground (certainly in the UK, perhaps not in other countries).

  • Lainie L.

    Are there ANY behaviors that result in greater financial and professional results for women? Substitute just about anything you can think of for “chit-chat” and it seems the men will benefit while the women will not.

    • Kimberly S.

      Isn’t this result consistent with what we already know? Gender bias can influence first impressions. Also, women have to work harder to be seen, heard, and given credit for their work than their male counterparts. In the field of negotiation, where so much may depend on accurately reading the personalities and circumstances and responding accordingly, experience in doing so may be a tremendous advantage, especially for a professional neutral.

  • Based on anecdotal experiences, I question the validity of this research. Small talk helps everyone in a negotiation. Women are not that unique. There are a few introverted males but most like to know something personal about the person on the other side of the table.

  • Although the authors of the new report ((Alexandra Mislin, Brooke A. Shaunessy, Tanja Henschel and Claudia Peus) argue that ‘Gender stereotypes and expectations likely explain the results’, my view is a nuance on that. It begins with the question “Was it the fact that Andrew made a ‘welcome innovation’ that led to his being judged — by the transcript-reading participants — ‘the clear winner?”

    We are all attracted by innovations that give us what we want, even — and perhaps especially — when what we want turns out to be different from what we have learned conventionally to expect. In this situation ‘chatty Andrew’ unexpectedly presented himself aimiably, i.e. in a rapport building way.

  • Norman D.

    The research is somewhat interesting but far too narrowly framed at this point to be drawn upon for anyone in their practice. There are massive cultural factors often at work in “chit-chatting” . Also, if there is an ongoing relationship required in implementing the matters under negotiation, those words said at the beginning, may have a huge positive impact. I was engaged in mediating an environmental dispute once, described in my chapter in Susskind et al’s Consensus-Building Handbook in which the so-called chit-chat led to transformative understandings that made the eventual agreement strongly supported. In another case, opening chit-chat, revealed some personal troubles that one of the negotiators had been going through. This led the opposite side to show touching concern, building eventually a much more constructive and trusting atmosphere for concluding negotiations. Far better for negotiators, men or women, to make the assumption that chit-chat is always worth doing if for no other reason than giving each other a sense of caring and mutual recognition.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *