Recognizing How Personal Attributes Affect Negotiations

You need be aware of the effect that your physical appearance may have on nonverbal communication. Awareness may permit you to build on your natural advantages. However, awareness of any natural disadvantage may be even more important.

Research has found that physical attractiveness affects the way you perceive yourself and the way other perceive you. Attractive people are better liked, get better jobs, and have more self-esteem and social power than unattractive people. They also receive preferential treatment in the initiation and development of interpersonal relationships.

Height Affects Perceptions

Taller men and women are normally perceived as more dominant than shorter men and women. Tall females are perceived as even more dominant and smarter when they are with short males.


Athletic looking people are normally perceived as more assertive and self-reliant than people with other body types. Heavier less athletic looking people are normally perceived as more lazy, sympathetic, and dependent than people with other body types.

Skinny fragile looking people are normally perceived as more suspicious, nervous, and pessimistic than people with other body types.

Personal Dress

The importance of how we dress is highlighted by the cliché, “Dress for success.” Clothing has been found to affect perceptions of credibility, likability, attractiveness, and dominance, but researchers agree that clothing has the most potent effect on credibility.

Unfortunately, many otherwise good negotiators ignore the importance of personal dress during negotiations, and that ignorance negatively affects their ability to attain mutually satisfactory negotiation results.

Make sure that your clothing is appropriate for the negotiation situation. Normally, you should dress for negotiations as you would for a promotion or job interview. This type of dress emphasizes your credibility and professionalism.

Casual days are growing in popularity. On such days, more casual dress may be appropriate. If you adopt more casual dress, always:

  • Advise the contractor of your intent to adopt a more casual atmosphere.
  • Remember that more casual dress will reduce the nonverbal emphasis on your credibility and professionalism.
  • Clothing such as jeans is never appropriate unless you are negotiating on a construction site or similar area.

If you wear a uniform, wear it properly. In general, people in uniform are perceived to have more power than the same people out of uniform. Failing to wear a uniform properly may be  perceived as showing disrespect for yourself, your organization, and the other negotiator.

General Personal Grooming

General grooming, especially poor grooming, can have a profound effect on how you are perceived by others. Do not allow poor personal grooming (e.g., uncombed hair or an unshaven look) to detract from your appearance and communicate unfavorable nonverbal messages about you or your negotiation position. Remember, that if you look good, you will generally:

  • Feel better;
  • Perform better; and
  • Be perceived better by others.

Vocal Cues

The nonverbal messages communicated by the sound of the human voice can provide valuable information during negotiations. There are eight attributes of speech that provide especially important vocal cues that you should consider during negotiation:

  1. Loudness. Without enough loudness you cannot be heard. However, shouting or a harsh sounding voice may be perceived as disruptive or insulting. Many times, lowering your voice almost to a whisper will help you make a point better than shouting.
  2. Pitch. Most factual communication includes moderate changes in the pitch of your voice. A monotone involves little or no change, and may be perceived as indicating apathy or boredom. A high-pitched voice may be perceived as indicating excitement. A low-pitched voice may be perceived as indicating anger.
  3. Rate. A slow rate of speech may frustrate the listener. An increasing rate may be perceived as the result of increasing intensity. A fast rate may be perceived as an indicator of nervousness and it may also be difficult to understand.
  4. Quality. This is the characteristic that permits you to differentiate one voice from another.
  5. Regularity. The regular or rhythmic voice pattern will normally make you sound more confident or authoritative. Irregular speech might be perceived as more thoughtful or uncertain depending on your words and other nonverbal messages.
  6. Articulation. Speaking each word clearly makes you easier to understand.
  7. Pronunciation. To be understood, you must also use the correct sounds and emphasis in pronouncing each word. Mispronouncing a word might be perceived as indicator of ignorance or incompetence.
  8. Silence. The absence of sound can also send a strong message. Silence gives you an opportunity to listen. You can obtain useful information from the contractor’s team by listening to what they say and how they say it.

Handshake Cues

Most negotiations begin and end with a handshake, and every physical clasping of hands provides subliminal nonverbal message(s) to the parties involved. These messages can have a significant effect on their perceptions or each other. Use your initial handshake to convey a positive first impression.

  • Signal positive attributes through your grip.
  • A firm handshake or executive grip conveys positive attributes (e.g., power, confidence, and sincerity).
  • A loose handshake may send unflattering messages  (e.g., weakness and insecurity). Some people even feel insulted when someone uses a loose grip or just grasps their fingertips.
  • A vice-like grip rarely sends a positive message. It may be perceived as an attempt at intimidation. It may cause real pain. Either way, it is not conducive to initiating a win-win negotiation.
  • Support your grip with other consistent nonverbal messages.
  • Smile and look the other person straight in the eye to signal honesty and friendliness.
  • Slight up and down movement emphasizes the strength of the relationship. However, you should never forcefully shake the other person’s hand up and down like an old water pump. That is normally considered excessive. It can also be painful.

Use a handshake after agreement to symbolically seal the agreement and set the stage for a positive continuing relationship. Consider emphasizing the warmth and importance of your continued relationship by:

  • Briefly prolonging the handshake;
  • Grasping the person’s hand between both your hands; or
  • Grasping the forearm, elbow, or even the upper arm of the other party as you shake hands.
  • Use a smile and positive words to dispel any tensions that may have built up during negotiations.

Failing to offer a handshake could seriously damage any hope for positive continuing relationship.

Handshake Differences

Be careful as you interpret handshake cues. As with other nonverbal messages, you should consider the possible effect of cultural differences:

  • In some Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, a gentle grip is preferred over the executive grip.
  • In some Asian cultures, direct eye contact during the handshake is discouraged.
  • In Islamic cultures, men never offer to shake hands with women. Touching between unrelated men and women is forbidden.
  • In the United States, some women extend their hand with the palm down preferring to only grasp fingers rather than use the executive grip. However, most business women prefer the executive grip when shaking hands with men or women, and many are offended when someone only grasps their fingers.


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

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