(This was a short article I wrote for supply management magazine a few years ago.
They asked me to put together a short piece on body language in negotiation, which are two of my specialist areas. In such a short piece it was difficult to get into any depth, but the advice here is good as a starting point and sticks closely to my mantra of establishing a baseline before you decide ANYTHING linked to a non-verbal clue. Enjoy!)
Body of Knowledge
Does folding one’s arms mean “defensiveness”? Or is the person just cold? Does avoiding eye contact mean shiftiness? Or is the person just shy or preoccupied?
Interpreting non-verbal gestures and signals that occur in any conversation is a skilled job. Learning to do so accurately can take years of practice and study. However, it is possible to get a “feel” for when something other than what a person is saying is happening beneath the surface. This gives us a clue – a starting point from which to probe further to check if our interpretation is accurate.
To pick up on these clues we must first observe when a person’s default state, or “normal” way of thinking, has been interrupted and they are beginning to feel slightly under pressure. This is valuable information, especially in the context of negotiation.
The first step involves “calibrating” an individual’s normal way of behaving. Often the best time to carefully observe this is in the pre-meeting contact. The small talk when we first meet someone and discuss the traffic and weather gives us clues as to how they hold themselves physically when they are not under any stress and have no reason to tell us anything other than the whole truth. How do they stand, sit and express themselves? Do they fidget or hold a calmer posture? What is their eye contact like and how do they use their hands? Crucially, observe the feet and legs for what we might refer to as their “normal” position.
This calibration process is vital, because the same gesture may mean different things for different people, and so these initial observations give us a baseline for that individual’s relaxed state. It is then relatively easy to notice a change to this baseline and therefore a change to normal or relaxed thinking. This change is the signal to watch more carefully and to mentally ask some questions.
What just happened to bring about this change? What was just said? Why has this fidgety person suddenly become still? Or why has this normally calm and composed person started to fiddle with their pen or collar? Certainly, if just prior to this behaviour the person received some bad news or potentially difficult information, then what you are seeing may be a physical reaction to pressure.
Before we make any judgments as to what a change in behaviour may mean, it is vital to consider the context in which the change occurred. For example, yawning might be indicative of stress in some cases, but if it is 10pm and you have been negotiating since 7.30am then the person is more likely to be simply tired.
Watching for changes in someone’s baseline state is an excellent way to begin to understand and interpret body language better. Noticing a change is only the start of the journey, merely a clue to what might be going on inside someone’s head. But in negotiation, as in life, any clue, however small, might well be all you need.