Body Language for Negotiations
by Carol Kinsey Goman
In any business encounter (from high-stakes negotiation to everyday bargaining situations), you are communicating over two channels—verbal and nonverbal—so that two distinct conversations are going on at the same time. While a well-designed bargaining strategy is obviously important, it doesn’t determine the most important message you send.
Communication research shows that in a 30-minute negotiation, two people can send more than 800 different nonverbal signals. If you focus on the verbal exchange alone and ignore the nonverbal element, you stand a high chance of coming away from that negotiation wondering why in the world your brilliantly constructed bargaining plan didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.
Here are five body-language guidelines to help you hold your own when you negotiate.
1. Start off with the right stuff. It all begins with the right attitude. Regardless of how tiring or frustrating your day may have been, before you enter the meeting room, pull your shoulders back, hold your head high, take a deep breath, and walk in as your best self—exuding ease and energy.
Just after entering the room, stop for a moment and look around at the people who have already assembled. Open your eyes slightly wider than usual. This will trigger an “eyebrow flash” (a slight upward movement that is a universal signal of recognition and welcome). Smile.
Make eye contact with all your counterparts. A simple way to enhance positive eye contact is to look at eyes long enough to know what color they are.
2. Shake hands. You can develop an immediate and positive connection with someone by simply shaking their hand—if you do it right.
•Whenever possible, initiate the handshake. Lean forward and extend your hand with your palm
• Keep your body squared off to the other person—facing that person fully. Maintain eye contact and
continue to smile.
•Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand (the skin between your
thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person’s.
• Press firmly—people will judge you as indecisive or weak if you offer a limp grip—but don’t be overly
aggressive and squeeze too hard.
• Hold the other person’s hand a second longer than you are naturally inclined to do. This
conveys additional sincerity and quite literally “holds” the other person’s attention while you
• Start talking before you let go: “It’s great to see you” or “I’m so glad to be here.” If you are meeting
for the first time, introduce yourself.
• When you break eye contact, don’t look down (it’s a submission signal). Instead, keep your head up
and move your eyes to the side.
3. Continue building rapport. In negotiations, rapport is the foundation for a win-win outcome.
Everything above has been geared to send rapport-building nonverbal statements. To continue building rapport, remember to maintain eye contact, lean forward, use head nods of encouragement, and smile when that’s appropriate.
The most powerful sign of rapport—and one that you already show (unconsciously) around people you like and respect—is mirroring the other person’s body postures, gestures, expressions, breathing pattern, and so on.
Mirroring builds agreement, but if you use mirroring as a technique, be subtle. Allow two or three seconds to go by before gradually changing your body language to (more or less) reflect that of the other person.
4. Display confidence. Showing your torso is one way of demonstrating a high level of confidence, security, or trust. The more you cover your torso with folded arms, crossed legs, and so forth, the more it appears that you need to protect or defend yourself.
Feet also say a lot about your self-confidence. When you stand with your feet close together, you can seem timid or hesitant. But when you widen your stance, relax your knees, and center your weight in your lower body, you look more solid and sure of yourself.
When you need to be seen as assertive, remember that power is displayed by height and space. If you stand, you will look more powerful to those who are seated. If you move around, the additional space you take up adds to the impression of power. If you are sitting, you can still project power by stretching your legs and arms and by spreading your belongings out on the conference table, claiming more territory.
5. Make a positive final impression. In the same way you conveyed energy and ease during your entrance and projected confidence throughout the negotiation process, be sure you also make a strong exit. Stand tall, shake hands warmly, and leave your counterpart with the impression that you are someone to look forward to dealing with in the future.
Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. The author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, she is also a contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, a blogger on Forbes.com, and a business body-language columnist for The Market magazine. To reach her, call 510/526-1727; email CGoman@CKG.com; or visit SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com.