Body Language in Negotiation Can Build Rapport—Without Saying a Word

Eye contact, gestures, and other forms of body language in negotiation can go a long way toward forging trust and lasting connections.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

body language in negotiation

Whether or not you consider George W. Bush a skilled negotiator, no one can argue the savviness of his body language in negotiation situations, as film and television producer Brian Grazer discovered. When Grazer was invited to the White House in 2005 for a screening of one of his movies, he started chatting with President Bush and was struck by how “warm and inviting” the president’s eyes were. Bush’s eye contact seemed to convey that he was “ fully present, patiently waiting to hear what I had to say,” recalls Grazer in his book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection (Simon & Schuster, 2019).

Yet the producer was thrown when Bush moved to his side until they were standing shoulder to shoulder. “Every time I would reposition myself to face him, he would immediately walk around to stand next to me again,” Grazer writes.

He concluded that the president—who maintained eye contact by turning his head—chose to stand next to him, rather than face-to-face, “to connect in a more egalitarian way, even though he was the president.”

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How body language in negotiation helps us connect with others

About 93% of our interactions with other people are nonverbal, according to an influential 1972 study by researcher Albert Mehrabian. In fact, nonverbal cues tend to influence our interactions more than what we say, research by Miles L. Patterson has shown. And when our speech doesn’t seem to match our appearance—such as an apology delivered with a smile, or a declaration of innocence accompanied by copious perspiration—people often trust our nonverbal cues more than our words, Judee Burgoon, Laura Guerrero, and Kory Floyd write in their book Nonverbal Communication (Pearson, 2009).

Grazer’s encounter with Bush highlights that nonverbal behavior can be useful in breaking down barriers between people and establishing rapport. Surprisingly, however, little research has examined how success is linked to body language in negotiation, write Jeff Thompson, Noam Ebner, and Jeff Giddings in a chapter on the topic in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference (DRI Press, 2017). But scattered results and anecdotal evidence suggest that certain nonverbal behaviors can go a long way toward establishing a connection with new counterparts and repairing relationships that have gone offtrack.

Opening the windows to the soul

For 40 years, Grazer has been feeding his curiosity by arranging sit-downs with people from all walks of life who interest him, as often as several times a week. He enters these “curiosity conversations” with no practical agenda but simply a desire to learn something new and perhaps spark an ongoing dialogue.

Over the years, Grazer has come to view eye contact as the “ignition point” in creating a connection with his conversational partners, as he describes in Face to Face. Maintaining eye contact helps him focus, he believes, and jumpstart a connection by conveying that he is fully engaged.

Grazer may be correct in asserting that eye contact is the most surefire tool for building a connection with someone. Unfortunately, it’s an underused tool for most of us, especially in recent years. Ideally, we should be making eye contact for 60% to 70% of conversation time, according to research by communications-analytics company Quantified Communications. But in 2013, most adults were holding eye contact only 30% to 60% of the time, the company found in an analysis of 3,000 speakers. Our compulsive need to check our smartphones and the trend toward working remotely may help to explain this eye-contact deficit, writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal.

When we avert our eyes from a negotiating counterpart, we risk seeming disinterested, nervous, or unprepared. By contrast, meeting their gaze conveys that we’re fully engaged. Combining eye contact with other nonverbal signals of active listening, including nods, appropriate facial expressions, laughter, and leaning forward, can encourage counterparts to keep sharing—and give us valuable information about their interests and priorities.

How much eye contact is enough? Holding someone’s gaze for seven to 10 seconds at a time is ideal in one-on-one conversations, communications trainer Ben Decker told the Journal. Staring at someone for longer than that can seem aggressive or just plain creepy, he added. Notably, as with all forms of nonverbal behavior, norms regarding eye contact vary across cultures. In some East Asian nations, for example, prolonged eye contact is considered disrespectful, and in other countries, eye contact between men and women is taboo.

Handshakes and hugs

When meeting a new negotiating counterpart, many of us—at least in Western cultures—instinctively outstretch our hand. While a handshake may seem like an archaic, inconsequential moment of using body language in negotiation settings, it can go a long way toward establishing a spirit of cooperation. In one experiment, participants who engaged in a simulated negotiation over a car created more value when they shook hands before negotiating, researchers Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton found.

Combining eye contact with other nonverbal signals of active listening, including nods, appropriate facial expressions, laughter, and leaning forward, can encourage counterparts to keep sharing—and give us valuable information about their interests and priorities.

Study participants judged those who shook hands to be warmer and more honest than those who didn’t shake, perceptions that prompted information sharing. (Handshake firmness matters, too: Thompson, Ebner, and Giddings recommend striving for a grip that’s midway between a “bone-crusher” and a “dead fish.”)

Of course, handshaking is another nonverbal behavior that’s culturally dependent. In Japan, for example, bowing is a more traditional form of greeting, notes Gino. It’s always wise to consult culturally savvy colleagues about nonverbal norms before negotiating abroad.

Both at home and abroad, other well-intentioned forms of touch—such as a pat on the shoulder or that prototypically American nonverbal behavior, the hug— risk violating people’s personal space, sending the wrong message, and causing offense. In Face to Face, Grazer describes the special connection that he and his wife formed with their tour guide, Kiki, during a memorable trip to Burma. At the end of the trip, when Grazer moved to give Kiki a hug, she backed away while maintaining eye contact. People in her culture don’t hug, she explained; rather, they look one another in the eyes during moments of emotional connection. On their next trip to Burma, Grazer and his family were careful to express their gratitude with their eyes when parting from their local hosts.

Your body language in negotiation settings acts as a status signal

Nonverbal behavior can also help us navigate status differences in negotiations and other interactions. Grazer speculated, for example, that President Bush chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, rather than face- to-face, to minimize the status difference between them and facilitate a more open dialogue.

As you may have noticed, when people are deeply engaged in conversation and like each other, they often end up mimicking and mirroring each other’s behavior—propping their chins on their hands, for example, or copying each other’s tone of voice. Such synchrony is more than skin deep: After spending just a few minutes together, people’s breathing patterns and heart rates converge, Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler has written in Negotiation Briefings. Getting “in sync” with a negotiating counterpart physically is bound to bridge status gaps and promote understanding. By contrast, deliberately maintaining your physical space (as by sitting behind a desk) and making an effort not to mimic the other person’s gestures is likely to underscore status distinctions—and could also block rapport building.

Our demeanor and appearance, including our clothing choices, also send potent status signals. This fall, the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball (MLB) team began holding interviews for the newly opened position of team manager. When bystanders snapped photos days apart of two top candidates exiting their interviews, Cubs fans jumped at the chance to play armchair body-language experts.

First up was former MLB player and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Clad in a suit and pulling a roller briefcase after his eight-hour interview, Girardi looked drained and tense outside the Cubs’ front office next to team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, who wore dress shirts but not suits. Next up was David “Grandpa Rossy” Ross—a beloved former Cubs catcher who helped lead the team to its momentous 2016 World Series victory. During a break in his four-hour interview, a grinning Ross, wearing a zip-up sweater and Cubby- blue sunglasses on his forehead, ambled to and from Starbucks with Epstein and Hoyer, who were also dressed casually. Which candidate do you think got the job? That’s right: Ross.

When we dress up for negotiations with high-status individuals, we show deference for their position. By contrast, dressing down can actually signal high status by suggesting we’re “above the rules,” Harvard Business School researchers Francesca Gino, Silvia Bellezza, and Anat Keinan have found. But even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knew to swap his usual hoodie for a power suit when summoned to testify before Congress about Facebook’s user-privacy violations.

A final note: Nonverbal behavior will be useless if there is no zone of agreement between you and your counterpart. In Face to Face, Grazer describes how his quixotic attempt to hold a curiosity conversation with Vladimir Putin eventually landed him in the Kremlin office of the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. To Grazer’s chagrin, it became clear that he had gotten his foot in the door only because an intermediary had falsely suggested Grazer wanted to make a celebratory film about Putin. When Grazer explained that wasn’t the case and he simply wanted to have an agenda-less conversation with Putin, Peskov abruptly ended the meeting. “Our desires were completely incompatible, mutually exclusive, really, and no amount of eye contact or persuasion was going to change that,” Grazer concludes.

Have you encountered situations where body language made the difference between a successful and unsuccessful negotiation?

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