Psychology can give an edge for effective negotiations

The firmness of a handshake can be telling. (Image credit:

Negotiation is much more than the words we speak. Our demeanour, body language, and non-verbal cues matter as much as our words.

As we step into a meeting, be aware of the psychological impact words and actions can have. Most training courses on negotiation suggest using psychological cues to show empathy.

Dress the part

First impressions have an impact on the outcome of the negotiation, so we may want to dress for power.

A bold, professional look conveys reliability and trustworthiness. A well-groomed and appropriately dressed negotiator psychologically projects the image of someone who:

  • Cares about the meeting and its outcome
  • Respects tradition and other people’s feelings
  • Shows others that they are important enough to dress up for

Practise consistency

How we behave reflects our core values. Consistent positive behaviour shows our integrity, honesty and reliability.

Being consistent assures others we can be trusted when facing the challenges in implementing an agreement.

Other negotiators may be more willing to make concessions when they know we are trustworthy.

The body language here is very clear. The upright guy is in charge. (Image credit:

Pay attention to body language

Psychology courses can prepare negotiators to read body language to influence outcomes.

Body language works both ways. We need to be mindful of our own body language as well.

Baseline behaviour

Before the meeting begins, engage in small talk to see how others behave when not under pressure.

Look for signs such as:

  • Frequency and length of eye contact
  • The firmness of handshakes
  • Frequency and genuineness of smiles and other facial expressions
  • Body posture when relaxed, excited, and bored
  • Patterns when telling the truth, and patterns when correcting others.

Observing body posture and facial expression in a neutral context forms a baseline. This baseline is useful for making comparisons during the meeting.

Check for deviations
Seek out deviations in behaviour when discussions reach critical moments. Watch out for signals that might suggest engagement, disengagement, withholding, deception or stress.

Engagement behaviours include:

  • Forward leaning
  • More smiling
  • Increased eye contact
  • Positive head movements such as nods
  • Excited quality of voice

Disengagement and withholding behaviours include:

  • Leaning back
  • Folding arms
  • Crossing and uncrossing legs
  • Frowns
  • Looking down or away
  • Narrowed eyes
  • Drab or bored quality of voice

Stress behaviours may suggest bluffing, irritability and discomfort.

Some stress indicators include:

  • Tightly crossed ankles
  • High vocal tones
  • Fidgeting
  • Licking the lips
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Face touching

Detecting deception requires noticing a pattern break. If the words are inconsistent with the pattern break, believe the pattern break, and probe further.

Most people are uncomfortable lying, so keeping the spotlight on the lie often pays off.

Learning to read body language can influence the outcome of a meeting. (Image credit:

Study gesture clusters

One instance of leaning back doesn’t mean someone is disengaging or losing interest. Expert courses on negotiation train attendees to interpret gestures in clusters rather than in isolation.

A perceptive negotiator looks for at least three signals that seem to reinforce the same non-verbal message.

Study Context

Too many people believe that crossed arms suggest inflexibility and a putting up of barriers. Yet, someone may cross their arms when the room temperature drops, or when they’re talking to themselves.

Thus, it is important to consider context alongside the gestures. When we have a baseline, we have a clearer evaluation of gestures to measure against.

Use partnership terminology

While non-verbal cues can point to intent, words have unmatched power. Words can enhance our power of perception and boost our influence.

The right words have the power to alter the psychology of those we’re in discussions with.

To drive talks to a mutually beneficial collaboration, start using partnership terminology.

Don’t even call the meeting a negotiation. Call it cooperation, partnership, or collaboration. Subconsciously condition their thinking to reach the same goals. Use plural pronouns, especially in the first person.

Words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘everyone’ have a subliminal effect in getting people to work together. Deliberators are likely to find it easier to create value and work towards win-win agreements.

Final thoughts

Use body language, smart dressing, consistency, and partnership terminologies to influence the psychological mood of our negotiations.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the world’s first blog psychologist and founder of Psychreg. As an international mental health advocate, he speaks at various conferences around the world and believes that everyone experiencing a mental health problem deserves both support and respect.