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 Katie Shonkon / Leadership Skills

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.


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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.


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.