negative body language

You enter in to the negotiating room and almost instantly you dislike the person you are negotiating with. You feel something slimly and distrustful in their approach but you can’t pin your finger on what it is. You live through the negotiation but you feel ill at ease. Later on, when the other party backs out on what they promised, you think “I knew something like this would happen. Why didn’t I just trust my gut reaction?”

Well you are not alone! Over 65-90% of every conversation is interpreted through body language, yet only about 4% of the population actually understands how to read body language. When negotiating, this one point can make the difference between a stress free effective negotiation and a rocky one that ends with both parties ticked off.

Why It Is Important To Understand Body Language When Negotiating

Once you learn to read and understand body language, you can see what a person is thinking but not saying. You can tell when they are in agreement with you, disagreement, bored, interested, upset, angry or confused.

I did some intense studying of body language in order to be able to negotiate better. I had studied the traditional ways of negotiating such as positional bargaining, but found that they didn’t give me any insight into the other person. I wasn’t finding a way to connect on a deeper level with them. Additionally, most of the people on the other side of the negotiating table were generally twenty years older than me. Even if I became adept at the tactics of traditional negotiating, these people had been doing it for so long they would always be able to out think me.

Negotiations: Make “I” Contact.

I also knew that much of the outcome of the negotiation is based on how you feel about the person and how the negotiation is being handled. I thought back to negotiations where I had agreed to less than I normally would. The common denominator in each instance was the sincerity and great approach of the other person. Instead of thinking about winning – which was ME oriented, I wanted to focus on adding value to the other person and be more WE oriented.

So, that left me with one solution – to understand what my colleagues or adversaries were thinking, but not saying. That way I would know when to make concessions, when to hold, and what questions to ask. Body language can provide those clues while at the same time redirecting your focus from yourself to the other person. You have to listen not only with your ears, but your whole body as well.

Yes, I see what you’re saying.

For me this really came to light during a major negotiation with a vendor that I and another buyer did $12 million dollars of business with. The president of the company flew in to meet with my management, the other buyer and myself. They came with an entire entourage including the Sales Manager and their sales people.

The meeting was tense right up front. They sat on one side of the long boardroom table and we all sat on the other side. The other buyer started the session by reviewing our joint agenda. As she went through each point I just sat and watched their president. I tried to imagine what he was thinking and feeling by reading his body language.

I watched their president squirm. He switched legs from one side to the next. He adjusted his tie and picked lint off of his clothing. He looked at the ceiling. He flipped his tie. He crossed his arms, and uncrossed his arms. He looked at his fingers and drummed them on the table. Finally he took the agenda, flipped it over, crossed his arms and legs and leaned back. At that point, the room got quiet.

As I watched him, I saw from his body language that he was irritated, that he felt attacked and unappreciated. I saw that he felt we were asking for a lot and not giving enough in return. So I leaned forward, looked at him, and said, “You have built a very successful company in a relatively short amount of time. You found a niche for comfort shoes that can be worn to work. What I want to know is, what are your plans for the company in the next five years? How do you plan to advertise and grow and how can we assist you?”

He looked at me skeptically, leaned forward, and on the back of the agenda sheet started sketching his ideas. The more he talked the more animated he became. I learned he was launching a major advertising campaign that was going to cost him a bundle. He was planning radio, television and billboard advertising. We started talking about how we could link into his campaign. I mentioned that we had three major sales a year and it would be great exposure to get him into those ads. We brainstormed what shoes to put in and decided a family shoe ad would be great. He offered to discount his top two styles for us.

Finally we got to the issue of defective shoes in his warehouse. I remembered how he picked lint off himself (a sign that a person disagrees with what you said, but feels constrained in offering his opinion) while we discussed why we needed him to take the shoes back. So I said, “We know you build a great shoe and we want to drive your business as much as possible. Your “walk-test” campaign is a great example of your belief in your shoe quality. We also believe the shoes are so good that if people wear them they will like them. So we are willing to have people buy them, “walk-test” them and return them if they don’t find them comfortable. We know the risk of returns, but we believe the risk of one return is worth the extra ten pair we can sell using this method. What we need to know is what you would prefer us to do. Should we stop having the stores support your “walk-test” campaign or should we go forward realizing that many of the shoes coming back to you will be due to customer discretionary returns instead of defects?”

He looked at me and replied that he would rather stand behind the walking program. He would continue to accept the shoes customers returned. He currently had thirty thousand pairs in his warehouse. When we finished, he laughed, flipped over the agenda, looked at it and said, “I just I gave you more than you came here to ask for and I feel good about it!” We all shook hands and as he was about to leave, he stopped, turned around and announced, “I just think you should know that I came here today to pull your $12 million dollar account. I was so angry I was willing to walk away from our business with you. Instead I am leaving excited about our business with you.”

Adversary to Partner: Listen with your eyes and see with your ears.

He came in as an adversary and left a partner. Why? Because by using Outcome Thinking® (talking from his perspective) and by reading his body language, I was able to connect with him as a person. The session wasn’t about what can we get it was about how we can grow two businesses. If I hadn’t been able to read his body language, I wouldn’t have known that he was feeling personally attacked about the defective shoes. I wouldn’t have known that he was defensive, thinking we were saying his shoes were not top quality. And I would have probably approached it all wrong.

body language importance

So what are the body language signs to watch for?

The following body signs are key ones to watch for when negotiating. They are based on the European American Culture and on the research work of Desmond Morris, Alan Pease, and Julius Fast to name a few.

I want you to think about these body signs as guidelines, not absolute truths. Whenever you see a sign you need to stop and ask questions to make sure you are correctly interpreting what the person meant. Body language is tied to our thoughts and not our words. This is why you can sometimes get mixed signals from people. When in doubt listen to the body language, not the words!

Positive Body Language Examples
Signs the person is listening and absorbing what you say:

  • Hand on Cheek – This gesture shows evaluation and genuine interest. The person likes what you have to say, is taking it all in, and evaluating it. At this time it’s helpful to ask questions to draw the person out and to hear her thoughts.
  • Chin Stroking – Here the person is making a decision. Don’t interrupt! Watch for the body language signal that immediately follows. Does he lean back and cross his arms? Those are “no” gestures. Elicit agreement on points and clarify points of disagreement. If he leans forward, keep quiet and let him talk first.
  • Seated Readiness – This gesture shows excitement and agreement. If this gesture immediately follows chin stroking, it means the person is saying, “yes”. At this point in the negotiation, switch to “we” as though you are both in agreement.
  • Head Tilt – This shows interest. Tilt your head while listening. You will find that you will actually become a better listener since your body language will trigger your subconscious mind that it is time to listen.
  • Dilated Pupils – The One Telltale sign that a person can never control! When you are interested in something your pupils will dilate up to four times their size. This shows excitement and interest. Now most of us instinctively read dilated pupils as more friendly and interested, but we rarely know we are doing it. If during negotiations a person’s pupils dilate, it means he’s interested in the deal, even if he says he isn’t. At that point hold to your original stand and ask him what he likes most about the deal. Conversely, if his pupils contract, you know he’s genuinely skeptical of your offer.

Negative Body Language Examples
Signs that tell you the person disagrees with you, dislikes what you said or is just plain hostile.

The following gestures give a more negative connotation and can put the other person on the defensive. Remember to read the gestures in the cluster in order to not misread what is being said. For example, crossed arms can signal defensiveness, or it can simply mean the room is cold. If the room is cold, the arms will be held tight into the body and they will occasionally rub their arms for warmth.

  • Crossed Arms – In general, this gesture can indicate defensiveness. Now, this does not mean the person is purposely sitting there thinking, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I am shutting you out.” What it does mean is that the person will filter everything they hear through how it effects them. Gerald I. Nierenberger, author of How to Read a Person Like a Book, studied over two thousand negotiations and found that not one closed when the participants’ arms and legs were crossed. Before any negotiation closed each party opened their arms and legs.
  • Hand Supporting the Chin – This gesture shows boredom. You literally could knock the hand away and the face would fall flat on the table. It appears as if the person has no interest in what you are saying. This gesture, combined with glazed eyes and vacant nods, means you have lost your audience. If you get this gesture a lot, it may mean you are giving too many details and your listener has tuned out. Try stating your point first and then giving the supporting data. If you want to test whether this sign signals that you have given too many details and have lost the person, just stop talking. The person will usually jump in and move on to something else. You will also get this gesture if you spend too much time talking about you and not the other person
  • Hands Clenched Together-This gesture is a sign that the person is frustrated. The higher the hands go, the more frustrated the person is. Stop talking and ask questions. Ask, “What are your thoughts on this?” “Do you agree with that statement?” “What ideas do you have?” or “What challenges do you think we face with this new idea?” You can bet the person has some ideas. Do not try to close a deal when you see this gesture. Instead, find out what they are upset about. They might disagree with a statement you made or they might feel you are talking over them. Ask questions to get them involved. As a tip, notice that all of my questions are open ended rather than yes/no questions. This gets the other party more involved in your negotiation.
  • Picking at Imaginary Lint-This is my personal favorite! According to Alan Pease in his book Signals, this means the person disapproves of the opinion or idea stated but feels constrained in offering an opinion. You definitely want to ask for input here! You will often see this gesture when a person feels cornered or disagrees as you. Whatever you do, do not ignore this gesture! You run the risk of making people feel like you don’t care what they think. If you talk with them privately and take action on what they say, it shows sensitivity and reinforces their confidence that they can come to you with any issues or problems. In a negotiation this can mean they are literally brushing you off!

Deceit Signs. Take these signs with a grain of salt. You want to watch the gestures that accompany these signs or you will erroneously assume that everyone who scratches their nose is lying to you.

If someone uses these gestures while talking to you, it may indicate lying or withholding of information. If they do these gestures while you are talking to them, it may indicate they are skeptical of what you are saying. Either way, these are important gestures to watch for.

If they are deceit signs, generally you will see the gestures accompanied by some of the following: squirming, breaking eye contact, shifting of eyes, shifting of body, turning the body away from you, voice level rising in volume and pitch. In a negotiation this lets you know whether they are serious about the offer or if they are going to just keep pressing you to give in more.

  • Eye Rub – According to Desmond Morris, if it is a big lie, a woman will rub lightly and look at the ceiling. A man will rub vigorously and look at the floor. Either way, the gesture is intended to avoid eye contact with the other person.
  • Nose Touching-Look for a slow rub by one finger just under the nose. This can be distinguished from allergies or general itchiness which is usually alleviated by hard rubbing on the top of the nose.
  • Ear Rub – This may be a finger behind the ear, in the ear, or rubbing the back of the ear. This is another way of avoiding eye contact. It is the brain’s attempt to replace eye contact with a distracting activity.
  • Collar Pull – According to Desmond Morris, this gesture signifies that the person suspects they will be caught. They don’t think you will really buy into their lie. Ever heard the term, “feeling the noose tightening”? When a person lies there is a definite chemical reaction within the body. Blood vessels will swell, body temperature will go up and there will be a sense of discomfort. Because of this, a person will pull at their collar to relieve the tension.
  • Neck Scratch – At the same time all of these chemical reactions happen in your body, a tingling sensation may pass up the spine. Desmond Morris found a person will scratch exactly five times to relieve the itch. Such gestures can be used for decent motives as well as dishonorable ones. Especially since we can’t always say exactly what we are thinking. Think about the last time a friend asked you if you liked her new outfit, and you thought it was hideous. Maybe you said “Oh, where did you get it? It really is you!” At the same time you probably unconsciously employed one of these deceit gestures which betrayed your true opinion.
body language men and women

Do Men and Women use the same body language? Now I want to quickly point out a difference between how men and women communicate in general. (I realize not all men or women communicate in a set style. This is just meant to give you an overview of how most men and women communicate.)

The Difference in How Men and Women Communicate in Body Language

John Gray and Debra Tannen each talk about the differences in how men and women communicate. For ease here, I am going to simplify the difference, although please realize that not all men and women fit neatly into categories.

In a nutshell, men communicate with status in mind; they seek to solve problems. Women communicate with connecting in mind. These are two very different ways of communicating and neither way is better than the other. In order to be a more effective communicator, you do need to understand the differences.

Women will often come back to the same issue over and over again, not to find a solution, but just to air their feelings. Men like to bring something up once, resolve it, and move on. They close that mental file and move on to the next. This difference in communication style can result in women concluding that men are cold and withdrawn while men often find women emotional and irrational. These differences come through in body language.

Head Nod – Men will generally only nod if they agree with what you are saying. Where women will often nod to show they are listening, not to signal that they are in agreement. So it is very important that you clarify, with a question, whether or not a person agrees with you. Don’t assume the head nod means “Yes”!

And What About Space?

Space plays a big role in negotiations. You have a definite space bubble you carry around you. If you trust people, you let them in to your space. Negotiations naturally make us more nervous and lead us to want as much space as we can possibly get. This is why most people tend to sit across the table from each other. This is the worst thing you can do! When you sit across from someone they naturally divide the table in half and half becomes your space and half becomes their space. To test this out, try going to lunch with someone and putting your beverage, the salt and pepper shaker, etc. on to their half of the table. You will find they will become agitated and move their chair back or they will slowly move things back so the space is even.

When negotiating, make sure you have a room that has enough space for each person to have elbow room. Once a person’s body space is invaded they will stop thinking rationally and will instead put their energy towards getting their space back! And the negotiation will most likely never close. Your best bet is to have a room with a round table so there is no “head” spot. It brings a feeling of equality to the negotiation.

Pulling It All Together

Okay, so what do you do with all this new found knowledge? Do you just stare at the other person trying to read in to every little nuance? Believe me, you can find yourself watching the body language so much that you miss the words!

Use these guidelines to ask questions and to set up an atmosphere that is the most cooperative. Make sure negotiating room has enough space for everyone. Try to have a round table. Come prepared for a focused outcome and then read the body language to flex right on the spot.

Remember negotiating isn’t about winning, it is about reaching an outcome that propels you forward! Use it as a time to build a relationship with the other person. Even the most stubborn negotiator likes to feel listened to and respected.