First Tip: Pay Attention
Many negotiators miss valuable opportunities to read their counterparts’ body language simply because they don’t pay attention. They make the mistake of looking down at the papers or contract presented instead of staying alert to nonverbal signals. So the next time your opponent presents a written document for you to read, resist the temptation to look at it. Instead, ask him to tell you what it says, and watch his body language as he does. You’ll learn so much more.
Second Tip: Identify a Baseline
How animated is your counterpart? (Does he or she show you a mobile, expressive, apparently candid face, or are you looking at the unreadable poker face of a professional card player?)
- How much eye contact are you experiencing?
- How much smiling are you being shown? Does the smile seem natural and genuine, or forced and perhaps nervous or manipulative?
- How much hand gesturing is your counterpart using? Which gestures are you seeing most frequently?
- What sort of posture is being displayed: Erect? Slouched? Shoulders back or hunched? Head held high—thrust forward—turned aside?
- When your counterpart is seated at the conference table, what position does he or she take: Upright? Leaning back? Forward? Sideways or square to the table? Legs crossed, or feet flat on the floor? Hands folded or spread on the table? Resting on or holding the chair arms? Out of sight in the lap?
Once you’ve determined how your counterpart uses his or her body in a relaxed, informal context, you’ll have a baseline against which to compare possibly meaningful body language deviations during the negotiation process itself.
Third Tip: Evaluate Gestural Clusters
Nonverbal cues occur in what is called a gesture cluster—a group of movements, postures, and actions that reinforce a common point. Trying to decipher body language from a single gesture is like trying to find narrative meaning in a single word. However, when words appear in sentences, or gestures in clusters, their meaning becomes clearer. For example, although a person’s fidgeting may not mean much by itself, if that person is also avoiding eye contact, wringing his hands, and pointing his feet toward the door, there’s a very good chance that he’s distressed and wants to leave. A good rule is to look for three body language signals that reinforce the same nonverbal message…
Fourth Tip: Consider the Context
…if a person sits in a chair that doesn’t have armrests, I realize that the limited option increases the likelihood of crossed arms—as would a drop in room temperature. And if someone were deep in thought, pacing back and forth with crossed arms, I’d know that this was a common way to increase concentration and persistence. It’s the same arm gesture in all situations, but the meaning changes dramatically with the context.
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