How To Understand The Non-Verbal Cues In Business

Life, and business, are a series of negotiations. Whether you’re negotiating a contract for a new job, creating or dissolving a business partnership, or simply negotiating with your spouse over who will make dinner that night, negotiation is an unavoidable – and often uncomfortable – part of life.

young afro american businesswoman sitting in office

In any type of negotiation, we all desire to give the illusion of control so we can gain the upper hand – but in order to do so, it helps to know what others are thinking and feeling. Are they walking into the negotiation feeling confident? Are they firm in their offer, or are they willing to budge? Are they happy with the offer that’s on the table? If only we knew the answers to these questions, we then could more confidently and accurately determine our next move.

Luckily, there are many non-verbal cues that can help you to determine what other people are thinking or how they’re feeling, even if they put on a strong poker face. In fact, our non-verbal actions speak much louder than our words. Most people would be surprised to learn that 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% of communication is voice inflection, and only 7% of communication comes from the words that we say.

To better understand what these non-verbal cues are and what they can tell us in a negotiation situation, we spoke to body language expert and Leadership Academy speaker, Jan Hargrave.


“If their facial expressions don’t match what they’re saying, then most likely the words that they’re saying are not genuine to them. There must be some congruence between the facial expressions and what they’re verbalizing. For example, if I say, “I love you,” but yet my face is angry and similar to that of someone who hates you, you would trust my face more than you would trust the words coming out of my mouth.”


“If someone is speaking with you, you should be square shouldered with them, and their body angle should be facing towards you – because we always point our bodies where our minds want to go. But if I’m speaking with you and my body is angled towards the door, that would indicate, ‘I want to hurry up and finish this, because I need to be somewhere else.’ People lean forward when they’re interested, and they lean away if they’re not interested. For example, if you have something that you really like, you’ll go towards it to touch it – but if it’s something you’re afraid of, you’re going to lean backwards. It’s the same thing when you’re in a negotiation with someone.”


“When their foot is pointed towards you, they’re usually engaged in the conversation that they’re having with you. If their foot is not pointed towards you, and it is pointed towards the door, they want to quickly make an exit.”


“When you look at their arms, notice if they’re crossed or uncrossed. It’s okay to casually cross arms when you’re talking to someone, but the onlyacceptable arm crossing is when hands and fingers are showing. When their hands and fingers are showing, it indicates that the person is in contemplation. When their arms are crossed and their hands aren’t showing at all, it’s as though they have a shield in front of themselves, protecting them from receiving your information. When someone is double-crossed closed, with both their arms crossed and their legs crossed, they’re feeling defensive and closed off to the negotiation.”


“When a person sits back, clasps his hands behind his head, and leans back, that’s a negative gesture. It’s a gesture of confidence, but it’s toostrong of a gesture to be done in a room of just two people. It’s equivalent to a person who has his feet up on the desk and thinking, ‘I am better than you are.’”


“The size of space you need around you while negotiating can indicate to another how much power you feel you have. For example, if you saw three limousines driving down the freeway and one is larger than the other two, you’d naturally think the most important person is in the largest of the three. So if someone is taking up a lot of space in a meeting room, it portrays the image, ‘I need all of this space because I’m going to be the one in control of the room.’ You can give the aura that you need more space by spreading your books out a little bit further than you need, or by resting one of your arms on the arm of the chair that you’re sitting in, and on the flipside, if the person you’re negotiating with is taking up a lot of physical space, then you know they want control of the room.”


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