How Body Language Affects Negotiations

Body language research has cataloged 135 distinct gestures and expressions of the face, head, and body. Eighty of these expressions were face and head gestures, including nine different ways of smiling.

These gestures and expressions provide insight into the attitude of the originator. Simultaneous physical signals often reinforce each other and reduce the ambiguity surrounding the message. For example, eagerness is often exhibited with the simultaneous physical displays of excessive smiling along with frequent nodding of the head.

Common attitudes communicated non-verbally during negotiations can be grouped into two broad classifications — positive attitudes and negative attitudes.


Example of Positive and Negative Attitudes

Positive attitudes indicated by body language may signal a sincere effort to achieve win/win results. Key indicators of positive attitudes are listed below.

  • Speakers indicate respect and honesty by keeping their eyes focused on the eyes of the listener(s).
  • Confidence is often exhibited by:
    • Hands in pockets with thumbs out;
    • Hands on lapel of coat;
    • Steepled fingers or hands;
    • Good body posture (e.g., square shoulders and straight back); or
    • Hands on hips.
  • Interest may be exhibited by one or more of the following:
    • Tilted head toward speaker;
    • Sitting on edge of chair;
    • Upper body leaning in sprinter’s position; or
    • Eyes focused on speaker.
  • Careful evaluation of what is being said is frequently indicated by one or more of the following:
    • Peering out over eyeglasses;
    • Chin cupped between thumb and fingers;
    • Putting hands to bridge of nose; or
    • Stroking chin.
  • Eagerness is often demonstrated by:
    • Smiling excessively; or
    • Frequent nodding of the head.

Negative attitudes indicated by body language may signal a deceitful nature or a win/lose approach to negotiation. Common indicators of negative attitudes are listed below.

  • Deception or dishonesty is often demonstrated by:
    • Frequent eye blinking;
    • Hand covering mouth while speaking;
    • Frequent coughing;
    • Looking away while speaking; or
    • Quick sideways glances.
  • Defensiveness may be indicated by the following:
    • Arms crossed high on chest;
    • Crossed legs; or
    • Pointing an index finger at another person.
  • Insecurity is often exhibited by:
    • Hands completely in pocket;
    • Constant fidgeting;
    • Chewing on a pencil;
    • Frequent coughing;
    • Biting fingernails; or
    • Hand wringing.
  • Frustration is frequently shown by:
    • Tightness of a person’s jaw;
    • Rubbing back of neck; or
    • Drawing eyebrows together.
  • Listener boredom or indifference is indicated by:
    • Eyes not focused at speaker;
    • Head in hand;
    • Sloppy or informal body posture; or
    • Preoccupation with something else.


Be particularly careful when interpreting or using gestures. A gesture that means one thing in one society can mean something completely different in another. There is a good chance that you will encounter differing interpretations whenever you are negotiating with someone from another part of the world. Even if the other party is from the United States, some of these differing interpretations may remain as part of the person’s heritage.

  • Shaking your head up-and-down means “yes” in the United States and left-to-right means “no.” In some parts of the world, the meanings are just the opposite.
  • The hand signal for O.K. in the United States is an obscene gesture in some societies.
  • The thumbs-up gesture is a positive sign in most of the world, but in some cultures it considered a rude gesture.
  • The V-shaped hand gesture with the index finger and middle finger may mean victory or peace in the United States, but in some countries it could be interpreted as an obscene gesture.

Body Language Application

In contract negotiation, you can use a knowledge of body language in several ways. As you prepare for negotiations, you should briefly review key elements of body language with other members of your team.

  • Exhibiting positive attitudes will make them more believable as they present support for the position.
  • Exhibiting negative attitudes will bring their support into question and may raise questions about the entire position.
  • A questioning look by a team member as you make a statement may bring your credibility into question.
  • A lack of interest exhibited by a team member may convince the contractor’s negotiator that the issue being addressed is not important to you.

During the negotiation conference, you can use your knowledge of body language in several ways. Understanding body language can help you gain greater insight into the attitude of the contractor’s negotiator. However, do not take one element of body language and make grand assumptions. Remember that similar types of body language can have substantially different meanings, and body language can be controlled by a knowledgeable negotiator. Look for confirming communications either verbal or nonverbal.

Concentrate on using body language that supports your verbal communications (e.g., eye contact will support your truthfulness). Unless you are very good, you will not be able to completely suppress your natural body language. Unless your natural body language indicates a negative attitude, your use of positive body language should strongly support your position.

Consider body language as you listen to the positions taken by other team members. If they appear uncertain, you might interject support. If they appear negative, you might ask for a brief caucus to remind them of the importance of positive body language.



Source: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment:

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