LEGAL NEGOTIATION: UNDERSTANDING VERBAL AND NONVERBAL SIGNALS

September 4, 2012

The precise language employed by individuals during bargaining interactions can be quite revealing. For example, if a person says she “cannot go any higher,” this is different from the statement that she “does not wish” or “is not inclined” to go higher. The first statement is unambiguous and suggests that she does not plan to go higher. The other two statements, however, suggest that she actually has more room and would be willing to go higher if necessary. She might indicate that she “has to have Item 1, really wants Item 2, and would like to get Item 3.” These statements subtly reveal her underlying values. Item 1 is essential – she has to have it. Item 2 is important, but not essential. Item 3 is desirable. She will give it up for anything better. When someone seems to get to their bottom line and indicates that “that is about as far as I can go” or says “I don’t have much more room,” such statements would clearly suggest that they are prepared to go further. Negotiators should carefully listen for such verbal leaks which give away critical information.

Negotiators similarly disclose crucial information through their subtle body language. Someone who has rejected several offers while sitting back in his chair and who moves slightly forward after a new offer is made suggests greater interest in the new offer than in the prior offers. Someone who leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head demonstrates great confidence and a belief that things are going well. A person who crosses his arms across his chest indicates a lack of satisfaction with recent developments. This is an unreceptive posture. A person who shifts back and forth in his chair with an open mouth indicates indecision. They plan to speak, but do not yet know what to say. A person drumming his fingers on the table or tightly gripping the air rests indicates frustration and impatience. A person who holds his palms out while conveying a “final offer” is more likely to be candid than someone whose arms are folded across his chest.

What are some nonverbal signs of deception. Some of these signals indicate underlying stress associated with deceit, while others are deliberately designed to make the accompanying lies more credible. People who are nervous tend to have enlarged eye pupils, blink more frequently, and speak in more elevated voice pitches. They may also place their hand over their mouth as if trying to hold in the lie they know is morally improper. On the other hand, they may speak more slowly to be sure you hear their misrepresentation, or make an obvious effort to look you in the eyes.

Negotiators need to be aware of the importance of nonverbal signals. They should read a book or two on nonverbal signs, and work to establish baselines in the persons with whom they interact. They then need to look for changes in anticipated behavior that give away important information.