“Let Me Hear Your Body Talk…”1
Negotiation Strategies: Tips for Establishing Connection and Optimizing Results
Series: Part 5
See if you recognize this scenario: you’re in a meeting trying to convince the other side to take your position. But something’s not right. You don’t feel comfortable. The mood in the room is guarded and tense. You really don’t know why: The sun is shining outside, streaming in through the windows. Everyone has coffee or water, and the apple turnovers are quite good. But you’re not connecting; in fact, half the time your counterparty isn’t even looking at you when she speaks. Suddenly, you begin to feel more uncomfortable, almost sick. The meeting ends way too soon with very little accomplished (other than a delicious breakfast).
What happened? If it could talk, your subconscious mind would tell you immediately. Her body language was shouting it loud and clear. You and your counterparty did not take the time to establish a rapport or connection that allowed each of you to feel comfortable, safe, and respected. Your conscious mind didn’t know specifically that this was happening, but unless you’re trained to see it, it usually doesn’t.
Before you roll your eyes, body language is real. Based on eons of evolution, ever since we used stone knives, wore bearskins, and roamed the savannah looking for food, humans have developed an innate ability to “read” non-verbal signals from other humans or the environment to sense danger or acceptance. In fact, your subconscious mind (euphemistically called your “lizard brain”) does it every day, sending secret messages to make you feel uneasy, wary, or even sick in the face of potential non-acceptance, disagreement, or danger. In his wildly popular, breakout book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the story of a museum curator in California who spent millions of dollars to purchase what he and other American experts thought was an authentic, ancient Greek statue. However, when the statue was sent to Greece for inspection after someone questioned its authenticity, museum curators in Athens felt an “intuitive repulsion” within two seconds of looking at it. Later definitive testing confirmed: the statue was, in fact, not authentic. In other words, for reasons they could not specifically explain, these Greek curators took two seconds to figure out what the American museum and its experts could not determine after months of testing.
If this is true, could we further hone our ability to decipher signals sent by particular bodily alignments and use them (a) to hasten and improve our ability to establish and maintain productive connections with people, (b) identify another person’s unspoken attitudes or views and (c) persuade them to change their positions?
The answer is yes, and the premise of Henrik Fexeus’s book, The Art of Reading Minds: Understanding Others to Get What You Want.2 Starting from the basic premise that ”the body and mind are actually inextricably linked, in both the biological and mental senses,”3 Fexeus posits that the creation of every human thought produces a corresponding biological or physical change, whether it be in hormones, body language, eye movements, speech tempo or other nonverbal ways.4 If, as the research suggests, most communication between two people occurs nonverbally, you can closely observe these signals, tell what the other person is thinking or feeling about your interactions, and exhibit them yourself to send similar signals back. And you can move the person’s attitudes toward you by using signals you know the other person will easily pick up and which will make them comfortable.5
STEP ONE: ESTABLISH RAPPORT
From the similarly spelled French word meaning “to have a relationship with or connection to someone or something,” rapport is the most important element of any negotiation. If successfully established, it creates a relationship of trust, cooperation, and openness to each other’s ideas.6
An optimum rapport is best created in steps. When you first meet someone, the best way to establish rapport is ”to adapt to how the other person prefers to communicate”7 by matching or mirroring their behaviors, as exhibited by their body language. If they move slowly, move slowly. If they use their right hand, use yours. If they sit back, relaxed with legs crossed, do the same. And, if they are noticeably serious and not smiling, treat the meeting with the same attitude. These steps should be taken discretely and incrementally, so the person doesn’t sense that you are robotically following them. Sounds funny, but studies show that these mirrored behaviors create a feeling of trust between parties because the parties’ subconscious minds are telling them “they’re just like me.”
The voice is also a powerful tool for making meaningful connections.8 While mirroring the tempo or speed of the other person’s voice is the most effective rapport-establishing tool, you may also match (again discretely) the tone, richness, and volume of your counterparty’s voice. True, you may not want to shout if they’re shouting, but you can raise your voice in response to show you’re just as zealous about the topic as they are. You can also lace your speech with some of the other side’s slang, jargon or what Fexeus calls “trance words,” or words the other side uses often.9 Once again, if applied discretely, these similar behaviors will create a rapport between parties that defuses their defenses and fosters more candid and fruitful exchanges of information and debate.10
STEP TWO: THE “EYES” HAVE IT
Another well-established but infrequently used method to read body language is observing (a) where the other person looks during your meeting and, if possible, (b) the size of their pupils.11
Look before you leap: Every single day, humans communicate non-verbally with their eyes. Think about when you walk down the street and pass someone. Two things usually happen: if your eyes meet, one or both of you smile. Why? Because by looking into the other person’s eyes and smiling, you are communicating to them “I am here, I see you, and I am friend, not foe.” The other person can either continue looking at you and smile back or avert their eyes and hurry by. If they do the latter, they are telling you “I see you but don’t want to accept your attempt to connect.” This usually makes you unhappy for a moment or wary of the other person’s motives. We can all think of many other ways we communicate non-verbally with co-workers, lovers, and friends using our eyes.
In a negotiation meeting, do your best to always look the other person in the eyes as much as possible, especially when you are making your pitch. This tells them that you want to connect with them, you are sincere and what you are saying can be trusted – exactly the traits you want your argument to have. If, in contrast, the other side barely looks at you, especially when they speak, you will quickly sense that they don’t really want to connect with you and might not be totally truthful or believe in what they are saying. If this happens, you can try to improve the connection by moving next to them to discuss an exhibit, or spreadsheet, or something else they must look at and understand. Watch them as they review it and look straight into their eyes. Chances are they will feel compelled to acknowledge you at their side and look back into your eyes when they respond.
The “size” is the prize: Your pupils dilate when you’re interested in someone or something. Like they do to gather more light when its dark, a person’s pupils increase in size if they are intrigued or excited by their circumstances. The way to use this in negotiations is to try and observe the size of someone’s pupils when you’re talking about something boring or common, like when you first meet and discuss the weather. Once you see this “baseline size,” compare it with the size of their pupils during a more important discussion. If the pupils are dilated, they are interested in learning more. If not, you’re not reaching them and it’s time to shift your strategy.
STEP THREE: READING EMOTIONS FROM “MICROEXPRESSIONS”
Obviously, one’s overall facial expression is the strongest evidence of a person’s emotional state. As humans, we know the difference between, for example, a face reflecting joy, sadness, or surprise. According to Fexeus, studies show that people around the world express the following seven emotions the same way: surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, or joy.12 We are all good at reading these emotions when the other side openly displays them.
Usually, however, negotiators do their best to keep facial expressions in check to avoid revealing their emotions to counterparties. The masters at this are championship poker players. Just watch a game on TV to see what I mean. Stone-faced, with their eyes hidden by sunglasses, championship card players provide absolutely no information or as little as possible to their fellow participants. There are, however, several expressions most people cannot prevent that reflect different emotional states. Next time you’re negotiating with someone, pay close attention to the other person’s face while you’re making a point or taking a position you know they strongly disagree with. For a split second, you might notice them raise their eyebrows, clench their teeth or lips, shake their head, or look down for a moment (common micro-expressions of anger or contempt). These micro-expressions send a message that they don’t like what you’re saying. Sometimes the person will slip and, for a microsecond, show full, facial anger or surprise before quickly putting their face back to “normal.” If you have a sharp eye, you’ll pick these up and use the information received to adjust your pitch, or maybe stop and ask them if they have any issues.
STEP FOUR: ARE THEY LYING?
Probably the question negotiators ask most is, how do you tell when the other person is obstructing, misdirecting, stretching, or otherwise hiding or embellishing the truth? Fexeus has an interesting observation: “if we suspect that somebody might be lying to us, we will concentrate even more on what is being said –when we ought to be doing the opposite…[W]e should care less about the words that are spoken and more about whatever he is expressing with the rest of his body and with his tone of voice.”13
These expressions Fexeus calls “contradictory signs in body language,” that is, unconscious body language signs that say something other than what your counterparty is consciously saying.
The next section of the book outlines many examples of partial or micro-expressions that indicate the person is veering from the truth. Here are some that you should look for: A fake smile (crooked lips, wide unnatural flashing of teeth), shifty eyes, looking down when speak, leaving eyes closed longer than normal during a blink, a slight shrug with hands down at their sides when expressing “I don’t know,” covering their mouth when they speak, scratching their nose, adjusting their glasses. If these contradictory expressions suddenly appear in people that you know well who normally don’t make them (e.g., people you’ve negotiated with many times before), they may be stretching the truth.
Tone of voice is also a factor: some people speak quicker, higher, and louder when they’re playing fast and loose with the facts, while others lower their voices and speak slower. Often, people suddenly pause in midsentence or before stating a lie and insert lengthy sounds like “uhhhhhh” or “”ehhhhh” – breaks in time so they can make up what to say next. They tend to digress more and give complicated answers that don’t make sense: for example, if you challenge their allegation and they respond with “yeah, I guess you could say that it could be, yeah sure…” chances are they don’t really believe what they just said. Also, when they insist their falsehood is true, people may speak in negatives terms as opposed to positives. Take Richard Nixon, for example, who often said “I am not a crook,” when he could’ve said “I’m honest.” If your counter party in a negotiation says, “I’m not lying,” instead of “I’m telling the truth is,” beware. Also, they might begin a big fib with an expressed reservation like “I know this sounds strange, but.”
This is just sample of how people communicate in body language multiple times, every day of the week. It’s a good checklist to use, especially with people you know, to “read the room” and be better prepared to adjust your strategy or take action in any negotiation.
“I’m being truthful here!”
1Lyric from the 1981, Olivia Newton-John song and album called “Physical.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_%28Olivia_Newton-John_song%29
2 Published in Great Britain by Yellow Kite Books, 2019.
3 Id. at pg. 3
4 Id at pg. 6
5 Id. at pg. 8.
6 Id. at 10.
7 Id. at pg. 11.
8 Id. at 29.
9 Id. at 34.
10 Although not technically “body” language, Fexeus includes other tried and true, spoken strategies, including (a) opinion aikido which, simply put, is making the other person believe you are like them by agreeing to one of their positions or principals during a negotiation, and (b) using the word “and” instead of “but” between a statement acknowledging (but not agreeing to) their position and stating an alternative more akin to yours (as in ‘I understand the reasons why you believe that $50,000 is the right number and I think, if we consider our analysis $70,000 might also be appropriate’).
11 Id. at pg. 53.
12 Id. at pg. 92.
13 Id. at pg. 137.