Be a Better Mind Reader and Create Value Using Integrative Negotiation Strategies

Body language in the negotiation process is one of the best ways to gauge your counterpart's willingness to engage in a win-win negotiation

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negotiation research body language in the negotiation process and mind reading

How important is body language in the negotiation process? Take the following example:

The parents of a toddler were interested in finding a babysitter to work one or two nights a week.

The couple was very happy with their daytime nanny, but they thought she would not be interested in staying past six p.m., since she was young, and they assumed she had an active social life. But when the nanny found out that her employers had hired a new sitter to work occasional evenings, she was disappointed. She had been looking for extra work, as she and her fiancé were saving up for their wedding, and she wondered why the couple had not approached her first. The parents, meanwhile, had to spend time getting their child comfortable with the new sitter—who ended up moving away after just a couple of months.

Whether parties are deciding to launch an armed conflict, engage more deeply in a business negotiation, or simply hire a babysitter, their interactions revolve around assumptions and inferences about each other’s beliefs, desires, and intentions. In negotiation, such “mind reading” is an important skill: if you think the other side has a desire to be fair, you are likely to be open to sharing information that moves talks forward. By contrast, if you infer that your counterpart doesn’t care about your interests, you may be withholding and distrustful, and your outcomes will suffer as a result.

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Body Language in the Negotiation Process: False Assumptions and Losing Value at the Negotiating Table

Unfortunately, as our babysitting story illustrates, the assumptions we make about others are often inaccurate. As a result, we pass up negotiating opportunities or leave significant value on the table.

In a negotiation research study, researchers Daniel R. Ames and Elke U. Weber of Columbia University and Xi Zou of the London Business School took a closer look at how people involved in business negotiations and other types of strategic interactions reach conclusions about each other’s interests. Their research, combined with the results of a new study on perspective taking, suggests the benefits of looking more closely at our assumptions about our counterparts before making decisions.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Negotiation? Mind-Reading Errors

Experts from different fields have found evidence confirming that we view our counterparts in different ways, write Ames, Weber, and Zou. First, we tend to assume—often erroneously—that others share our desires and intentions, a phenomenon known as social projection.

In negotiation, for example, we assume that others share our preferences on various issues.

This error prevents us from identifying differences that could open up opportunities for trade-offs that satisfy both parties.

Second, we fall back on stereotypes when trying to read others’ minds, making assumptions (whether true or false) about profession, race, and other categories to which our counterparts belong. We may assume that female negotiators will be less competitive than men, for instance.

When do we expect others to act and think like us, and when do we expect them to behave according to stereotypes?

Ames and his colleagues had participants predict how their assigned counterparts (whom they knew little about) would behave in various strategic situations, including negotiation scenarios.

When the experiment highlighted certain similarities between participants and their counterparts, participants fell back on social projection: that is, they expected the other party to think and behave similarly to them.

The participants essentially overgeneralized how much they had in common.

By contrast, when differences between the parties were emphasized, participants were more likely to fall back on stereotypes in their predictions of how the other party would think or behave.

The results suggest that we should be careful not to make too much of either surface similarities or differences between us and our counterparts, as doing so could prevent us from making the most of a given negotiation.

Body Language in the Negotiation Process: Improving Assumptions

The results of Ames, Weber, and Zou’s study paint a somewhat discouraging picture in which we make snap judgments about fellow negotiators based on superficial information. Yet we do possess the ability to understand our counterparts and capitalize on that understanding, according to recent research on perspective taking by Roman Trötschel, of the University of Trier in Germany, and his colleagues.

In negotiation, perspective taking involves making a conscious effort to identify the underlying interests behind a counterpart’s position. For instance, if someone refuses to share some information you’ve asked for, rather than writing her off as uncooperative, you might consider various reasons she could have for holding back, such as privacy or legal concerns. As professor Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University has written in these pages, perspective takers view negotiations more broadly and achieve better results than those who lack this key ability.

Related Win Win Negotiations Article: Win Win Negotiation Examples: Negotiating for a Winning Coalition at the Bargaining Table

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Discover how to handle complicated, high-level business negotiations in this free report, Win-Win or Hardball: Learn Top Strategies from Sports Contract Negotiations, from Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “How to Be a Better Mind Reader,” first published in the April 2012 issue of Negotiation.

Originally published October 2014.

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