Insights into Negotiations: The body language “says” a lot during negotiations!

Planning for a negotiation
Professor Douglas BOATENG

Negotiations are usually formal human interactive events. During this process, leading experts including Simon Horton, Tony Tracy Hui Zhou et al. acknowledge that “we move our hands to emphasize in our talk. We frown, smile, fold our arms, and move towards objects or people, then move away. How we stand, walk, eat, and gesture reveal much about our personality.”

These mannerisms are simply called “body language”. It is an important means through which people communicate with each other. It refers to the part of interpersonal communication that occurs without the use of words. With the right body language, not only will one get the desired result, but also as pointed out by Christopher Voss, Kestutis Peleckis, and Valentina Peleckiene, “there is the possibility of setting the grounds for the establishment of a long-term mutually beneficial relationship.”

Body language is generally known to be culturally dependent so different nations express different gestures through hands, legs, torso, face, eyes, and mouth.  Today, numerous experts including Navarro J, Ambaby N, and Buck R, are of the view that the success of a negotiation process is largely dependent on how a negotiator can back up words with physical actions that exude openness, honesty, and confidence.

During negotiations, one’s body language and gestures can easily send cues to the other party.  For example, the  way we position and move our heads, move our hands and crisscross our legs affect negotiations in distinctive ways. Therefore using the right body language is vital to success.  Seasoned negotiators continue to learn how to read and use body language to their advantage.

Unfortunately, many negotiators as pointed out by Carol Kinsey Goman “miss valuable opportunities to read their counterparts’ nonverbal messages — simply because they don’t pay attention. They get so wrapped up in what’s being said or in the documents being presented, and neglect to look for these vital cues.” 

Hui Zhou & Tingqin Zhang writing in the International Journal of Business Management rightly stated that “In business negotiations, body language plays a significant role in the deal-making. It was thus necessary to master the skills of using and reading body language”.

That is why Joe Navarro and Deepak Malhotra assert that “understanding how to use body language effectively in negotiations was essential as it helps a negotiator to understand what the other person is saying by interpreting their mood and emotions. In so doing, negotiators could pivot their position and reaction to their counterparts’ proposed ideas in a way that satisfies both parties”. They affirmed. To Simon Norton and Tony Rossiter, a confident body language is about:

  1. Standing tall
  2. Head lifted in interest
  3. Legs and arms uncrossed
  4. Shoulders back and head up
  5. Strong gestures
  6. Intentional movements
  7. Walking purposefully
  8. Strong handshake
  9. Looking people in the eye

Carol Kinsey Goman provides examples of signs that show that a person is listening and absorbing what is under discussion:

  • Hand on Cheek
  • Chin Stroking
  • Seated Readiness
  • Head Tilt
  • Dilated Pupils

According to Herb Cohen, Dhruv Khullar, Jim Camp, et al, the following gestures give a more negative connotation and can put the other person on the defensive.

  • Crossed Arms
  • Hand Supporting the Chin
  • Hands Clenched Together

UCLA Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian’s ‘7-38-55’ rule succinctly sums up the need for negotiators to not underestimate body language during negotiations. To the Professor, 7 percent of messages are based on the words while 38 percent are based on the voice tone and 55 percent on the speaker’s body language. A good negotiator must thus consciously manage his or non-verbal language, to understand what he/she is demonstrating to his opponent as well as to know how to understand the opponent’s body language, to see when his or her verbal and body language conflicts with each other, when they are the same.

Researchers Allan and Barbara Pease examined thousands of entrepreneurs and found out that about 60-80 percent of entrepreneurs are watching body language and forming opinions on new persons as soon as possible within four minutes. The situation is not different during negotiations

Joe Navarro emphasizes the importance of reading the body language signals, arguing that “the behaviors and messages can reveal the true human thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Though the various suppositions relate to situations where people are forming assumptions about fellow beings, it nonetheless as pointed out by Chris Voss provides a useful reason for negotiators to consider. In so doing a negotiator can match up the voice tone and body language with the words spoken.

Hui Zhou & Tingqin Zhang’s work further demonstrated that up to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal and “though one might say one thing, the body movements may indicate something entirely different.  They define “body language” as the non-verbal communication or the communicative functions of the body.

A study by psychologists and language expert Gengo confirmed that body language and non-verbal communications have a more significant impact in a discussion than the actual words that are spoken. In other words, it can make or break a deal”

Some guidelines that may also prove useful in negotiations are succinctly provided by Shapiro negotiations:

  1. Stand up straight and take up space
  2. Lower vocal pitch
  3. Keep a wide stance
  4. Use positive hand gestures

Maintain eye contact and smile. Smiling is the easiest way to make the other person comfortable and will often make a person more memorable in a positive light. This is because smiling at a person usually leads to their smiling back, and the act of smiling often triggers happy feelings.

While too much eye contact can be seen as somewhat unnerving, it is always better to make frequent and intentional eye contact with your audience. Whether negotiating with a group of people or only one person, making and keeping eye contact is important, especially when explaining key issues or important points.

Professor Manie Spoelstra  provides a summary of how smiles and eye contact differ between races

Arabian Yes
Asian Yes
European Yes Yes
American Yes Yes
Japanese Yes
South African* Yes* Yes*

The report also provided evidence that Asians, Africans, and Orientals will look down and avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect, while for Europeans and North Americans lack of eye contact is often an indication of lack of attention, and could be regarded as impolite.

During negotiations, there have been instances, when the person on the other side is looking uncomfortable.  It means she/she as rightly pointed out by Tony Rossiter and Christopher cooper-iND “may be hiding something or they are been economical with the truth”.  Examples of negative body language include:-

  1. Evasive eyes- lack of confidence
  2. Fidgeting -anxiety, and uncomfortableness
  3. Unnecessarily smiles-nervousness
  4. Nail biting – suggesting insecurity or stress
  5. Locked ankles – are also associated with anxious thoughts
  6. Rapid blinking – which may indicate uncertainty or concern
  7. Tapping/drumming fingers – often a mark of impatience or boredom
  8. Fidgeting – more evidence that someone’s disinterested or distracted
  9. Dossing off-bored or uninterested
  10. Looking away-distracted
  11. Crossed arms-defensive posture
  12. Sitting slumped, with head downcast
  13. Gazing at something else, or into space
  14. Fidgeting, picking at clothes, or fiddling with pens and phones
  15. Writing or doodling

Mirroring the other side’s body language has sometimes proven to be useful. It creates an empathetic impression of the other side and could lead to a win-win outcome. Mirroring can be achieved through voice tone, body language, and the use of the eyes. When it’s happening, it means the parties are unconsciously bonding and establishing some mutually beneficial rapport.

The significance of non-verbal communication is more relevant when the opposite negotiator is from a different culture and does not speak the same language. A negotiator thus has to be careful in using his body gestures in support of his communication. Even if body gestures are not expressed, subconsciously, a person can make a movement that might not be appreciated by the opposite negotiator.  These subtle gestures can have a greater impact on the mind of the opposite negotiator than one may expect when compared to their own culture.

Marty Latz cautions negotiators not to underestimate the effect of clothing and appearance. Research has shown that they help others to determine status, credibility, and persuasiveness.”.

To sum up, negotiating successfully is about more than just saying the right thing. Reading and controlling body language during negotiation according to Deepak Malhotra, Daniel Ames, Tony Rossiter, and Brian Tracy is critical to ending up with a win-win outcome. They assert that seasoned negotiators continue to use body language to gain an urge over their counterpart(s). They further suggest carefulness when interpreting or using gestures. A gesture that means one thing in one society can mean something completely different in another.

Therefore, there is a good chance that a negotiator will encounter differing interpretations whenever they are negotiating with someone from another part of the world. For example, shaking your head up and down means “yes” in the United States, and left-to-right means “no”. In some parts of the world, the meanings are just the opposite.

To conclude, body language gives away vital information and clues during negotiations. Good negotiators know how to use body language to their advantage. They also know how to read other people’s body language to gain the upper hand. “Crossed arms, raised eyebrows, wandering eyes all mean something. Paying attention will enable one to learn more about what is going on in the negotiation regardless of what is being said with words”. Chris Voss, Simon Horton and Brain Tracy stressed.

>>>the writer is an international chartered director and Africa’s first-ever appointed Professor Extraordinaire for Industrialisation and Supply Chain Governance.  He is the CEO of PanAvest International and the founding non-executive chairman of MY-future YOUR-Future and OUR-Future (“MYO”) and the highly popular daily Nyansa Kasa series. He is currently the non-executive chairman of the Minerals Income and Investment Fund (MIIF). Professor Boateng was previously the non-executive chairman of the Public Procurement Authority (PPA). For more information on  Nyansakasa visit




Leave a Reply