This article was last updated March 4, 2022.
You’re in the middle of a tense negotiation when the person across the table angles to the side and begins making less eye contact with you. Would you notice and, if so, how would you interpret this shift in their behavior?
Would you like to know how the person you’re negotiating with is really reacting to the negotiation? If so, being able to read and interpret their facial expressions and body language is pivotal.
Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950s, found that only about 7 percent of the impact of a message is verbal (words only), while tone of voice, inflection and other sounds accounts for 38 percent. But more than half of a message’s impact (55 percent) is nonverbal, i.e. body language.
FBI counterintelligence and behavior analyst Joe Navarro outlines the importance of the smallest things that happen during a negotiation, from the way you enter the room to the way you greet the people there. Even when you don’t realize it, you’re already negotiating through your behavior and the confidence you project.
This may be the most powerful argument for doing all negotiations face-to-face or via Zoom as opposed to texting or emailing, where you only are able to access 7 percent of the other party’s communication. The question then becomes how to interpret what you’re seeing.
3 categories of negotiation signals: green, yellow and red
What types of body language signals do people send during a negotiation, and how should you respond? A simple analogy is a traffic signal:
- “Green” signals indicate the client is open and receptive to what you are saying.
- “Yellow” signals indicate you are meeting with resistance and it’s wise to exercise caution.
- “Red” signals mean STOP! It’s time to shift gears and to do something different.
To read the other party’s signals, you must be alert to what the client says, how they modulate their voice, as well as how they position their body. The five channels to watch are the face, arms, hands, legs and body position.
What are the telltale signs to look for in terms of a person’s face?
- Looking away or decreased eye contact indicates that the person is trying to hide something from you.
- Increased eye contact signals honesty and interest.
- Red face and/or throbbing neck or forehead is a definite “red light.” STOP immediately — the person is angry, embarrassed or both. A throbbing vein almost always means the person’s blood pressure has shot up dramatically!
- Chin up usually indicates defiance. Chin down may indicate dejection, depression, or sadness or it may merely mean the client is looking at the paperwork.
- A raised eyebrow indicates the person disbelieves what you’re saying.
When it comes to evaluating arm movement, the critical factors are the degree and the intensity of the movement.
- Open arms generally indicate that the person is open to what you are saying.
- Crossed arms may be interpreted in two different ways. If the person is feeling chilled, they will draw their shoulders up towards their head as a way to keep their body heat in. If their shoulders are down and their chin is tilted up, they’re angry, not cold. This is a red signal to stop.
- The “cold shoulder,” one shoulder pointed at an angle to you, is a yellow warning signal to change your approach.
- One arm hanging over the back of the chair indicates that you do not have the client’s full acceptance or attention.
- Forearms barely touching the desk signal that the person is ready to make a quick retreat. This is a yellow signal to proceed cautiously.
- Upper arms and elbows as far back in the chair as possible indicate that the person is feeling defensive or wanting to withdraw completely. This is definitely a red signal to immediately stop whatever you are doing or saying.
People’s hands provide signals in the following ways:
- Open and relaxed hands, especially with the palms pointing up, are a green, full-speed ahead signal.
- Open palm(s) held out like a “stop” signal, mean exactly that, stop.
- Using the hands to touch the chin, ear, nose, arm or clothing usually indicates tension. This is a yellow signal to slow the pace of the negotiation or to probe for a problem.
- Tightly clasped hands or fists, or involuntary hand gestures that contradict a facial expression usually are a red signal indicating strong negative reaction. Clasped hands or fists may occur before the person’s face becomes red. Immediately stop before you make matters worse.
Just as crossed arms indicate the negotiation is not going well, making a sale is highly unlikely when the person’s legs are crossed. Signals to watch for include:
- Legs crossed at the ankles indicate the person is feeling defensive, reserved or uncooperative. This may be an early indication that you have moved from a green or yellow signal to a red stop sign.
- Crossed legs with the toe of the crossed leg pointing towards you, indicates a green — they’re with you.
- Crossed legs with the toe of the crossed leg pointing away from you, is a red signal — your message is not having the desired effect.
- Uncrossed legs with both feet flat on the floor indicate that the person is open to what you are saying or doing. This is a green signal that the negotiation is on track.
One of the easiest ways to tell if a negotiation is on or off track is to look at the direction in which the other party is leaning.
- Leaning forward means the client is with you emotionally. This is a green signal that the negotiation is going well.
- Leaning back, while still maintaining eye contact and open arms, is usually a yellow signal that indicates the client needs more facts and logical data. Before moving forward, probe for the type of additional information they need.
- Leaning back and/or turning their face away from you is a red signal that indicates the person is reacting negatively to what you are saying.
- Side to side movements suggest insecurity and doubt. This is a yellow signal that may indicate boredom. Probe more deeply to determine if they’re uncomfortable or have lost interest.
When you are negotiating, look for these patterns and for specific shifts in the person’s body language to understand what the other person is really experiencing. In terms of your own body language, keep your body language still and open. Otherwise, you may give away much more than you realize, including your commission.
Bernice Ross, President and CEO of BrokerageUP and RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles. Learn about her broker/manager training programs designed for women, by women, at BrokerageUp.com and her new agent sales training at RealEstateCoach.com/newagent.