Using Body Language in Negotiation

Understanding body language in negotiation helps you become a more effective negotiator

By — on / Negotiation Skills

body language in negotiation

Negotiation experts typically advise us to meet with our counterparts in person whenever possible rather than relying on the telephone or Internet. As convenient as electronic media may be, they lack the visual cues offered by body language in negotiation help convey valuable information and forge connections in face-to-face talks. Without access to gestures and facial expressions, those who negotiate at a distance have trouble accurately reading each other’s tone and building rapport.

But what, exactly, do negotiators learn from nonverbal behavior and body language in negotiation?

Do we read each other’s gestures and expressions accurately or not? Can we increase our body language in negotiation success by deliberately modifying our own nonverbal behavior?

Here we analyze three scenarios to help you understand how body language in negotiation may be affecting your outcomes:

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Persuasion Techniques 

1. To mimic or not to mimic?

A corporate headhunter welcomes you into a conference room, and the two of you settle across from each other at the bargaining table. Twenty minutes later, the interview seems to be going very well. You happen to notice that you and the recruiter are sitting in the same position, leaning back with your legs crossed. Feeling self-conscious, you wonder if you should shift position.

After two or more negotiators have been in each other’s presence for just a few minutes, their behavior begins to subtly converge, writes Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler.

Their breathing patterns and heart rates sync up, and they also tend to mimic each other’s posture and hand gestures. Rather than feeling embarrassed or silly when you and a counterpart copy each other’s behavior, you should congratulate yourself. Mimicry is a sign that you’re both striving to build rapport, connect, and find common ground, even if you don’t know how or when the mimicry started.

Mimicry seems to make us feel comfortable with others and encourage us to trust them. In fact, professor Tanya Chartrand of Duke University has found that we tend to view those who mimic our movements when they talk to us as more persuasive and honest than those who do not mimic us.

Note that negotiators who are already aware of the benefits of mimicry may attempt to use it strategically, copying your gestures deliberately to build rapport—something to look out for.

2. Should you trust or not?

In a real-life example of the power of image, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German, successfully passed himself off as a member of the Rockefeller family for many years while living in the United States.

Armed with little more than an aloof personality and a preppy wardrobe, Gerhartsreiter conned his way into marriages and high-level jobs in investment firms, writes the Boston Globe, despite an obvious lack of experience and credentials, before being arrested in August for allegedly kidnapping his daughter.

Research shows that most of us tend to automatically trust those we meet—and adjust our perceptions only in the face of overwhelming evidence. The story of Gerhartsreiter Is just one vivid example of the power of visual cues in guiding our behavior.

When you’re evaluating a negotiator’s trustworthiness, it pays to remember that some nonverbal signs are more important than others when using body language in negotiation. Professor Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University Of Pennsylvania notes that liars sometimes have trouble matching their facial expressions to the emotion they’re communicating.

A liar might have difficulty coordinating her behavior—saying no while nodding yes, for example. Liars also sometimes forget to add the gestures, pitch variations, raised eyebrows, and widened eyes that we make naturally when telling the truth.

But don’t count on nonverbal signs exclusively when assessing someone’s trustworthiness. To smoke out a lie, ask lots of specific, clear questions about his claims, recommends Harvard Business School Professor Max H. Bazerman.

In particular, try asking different versions of the same question at several points in your conversation and compare the consistency of the responses.

3. Can they read your mind?

An attorney is looking forward to representing his client’s strong case in court. The client is a nice but anxious person, and his questions about the case sometimes irritate the attorney. Though the attorney has been polite, she’s worried the client will pick up on her underlying impatience through her nonverbal behavior.

Most business negotiators have faced the challenge of smiling through gritted teeth at a counterpart they find aggravating. We all understand the value of being friendly and patient while focusing on our goals, but it’s sometimes difficult to keep our true feelings under wraps. How skilled are we at communicating emotions that don’t quite match our true feelings? Professor Paul Ekman of the University Of California Medical School, San Francisco, has identified “micro-expressions”—fleeting, involuntary signs of one’s genuine emotions, such as a blush or a grimace—that might tip others off to our thoughts.

But such micro-expressions can be all but impossible for anyone but a trained researcher to detect. In a recent experiment, Stephen Porter and Leanne ten Brinke of Dalhousie University asked participants to respond to a series of emotionally charged or neutral images. The participants were asked in advance to respond to the image either genuinely or to respond with false emotions. Those asked to be deceptive displayed inconsistent facial expressions and increased blinking more often than those who reacted genuinely. Participants had more trouble falsifying negative emotions than positive ones; it seems happiness may be easier to fake than sadness or fear.

Yet untrained observers detected the deception at a rate only slightly better than chance. In other words, you may have trouble hiding your feelings, but others may be even worse at detecting them.

Rest assured that most people will take your social niceties at face value. At the same time, you should practice expressing difficult sentiments in a constructive, sensitive manner. In negotiation, sometimes words do speak louder than actions.

Read also: Debating Body Language: U.S. Presidential Candidate’s Unspoken Messages.

How has body language in negotiation affected your outcomes? Let us know in the comments.

Negotiation Skills

Claim your FREE copy: Negotiation Skills

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “How Body Language Affects Negotiation,” first published in the November 2008 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

Originally published in 2014.

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3 Responses to “Using Body Language in Negotiation”

  • Areej A.

    I want to know more details about body language in negotiations at conflict resolution as a negotiator

  • Elizabeth P.

    Thank you for your information as I find it very educational and helpful.
    Am dealing with a male sibling counterpart (resides abroad) concerning my properties he is refusing to return. He is a pathological lier with narcissistic personality disorder.
    Can you refer me to any negotiation reference to deal with this type of con artist. Thanks again.


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