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Business Negotiation

Non-Verbal Communication: Body Language For Negotiators

By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

In any business encounter (from high stakes negotiation to everyday bargaining situations) you are communicating over two channels – verbal and non-verbal – resulting in two distinct conversations going on at the same time.

While a well-designed bargaining strategy is obviously important, it’s not the most important message you send. Communication research shows that in a thirty-minute negotiation, two people can send over eight hundred different nonverbal signals.

If you focus on the verbal exchange alone and ignore the non-verbal 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 meeting room, stop for a moment and look around at the person or group that has already assembled. Open your eyes slightly larger 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 of 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, you should initiate the handshake. Lean forward and extend your hand with your palm facing sideways.

• Keep your body squared off to the other person – facing him or her fully.

• Maintain eye contact and continue to smile.

• Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of you 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 exchange greetings.

• 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). Rather, 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 you have done from the time you entered the room until now 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 appropriate.

The most powerful sign of rapport – and one that you already do (unconsciously) around people you like and respect – is to mirror the other person’s body postures, gestures, expressions, breathing pattern, etc.

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, etc. 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 that impression.

If you are sitting, you can still project power by stretching your legs and arms and by spreading out your belongings on the conference table, and 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 he or she should look forward to dealing with in the future.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an executive coach, change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She’s a expert contributor for The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, a leadership blogger on, a business body language columnist for “the Market” magazine, and the author of  “The Silent Language Of Leaders: How Body Language Can help – or Hurt – How You Lead.”

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