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How to Use Body Language as a Negotiation Tactic

By |January 27, 2020

Negotiation isn’t always about the words you say and the way you say them. Nonverbal cues often play a crucial role in how things go when you’re sitting at the table.

More specifically, body language is both an amplifier and an indicator. 

Here are the ways to maximize body language negotiation tactics—and get better outcomes because of it.

Body Language as an Amplifier

Maybe the most universally understood encourager (and discourager) is the head nod.

But not all head nods are the same.

Staying Focused and Awake with a “Yes” Head Nod

I first picked this up when watching one of the smartest (and most decent) guys I know: John Richardson. 

When John is listening to someone, he’s always giving these great enthusiastic head nods that indicate something along the lines of: Yes! Brilliant! I’m with you! Go on!

I’ve watched speaker after speaker tune into him and just talk and talk and talk with great enthusiasm.

The “yes” head nod also keeps you awake!

As I practiced the affirmative head nod, I found that when I was listening to someone and having trouble staying focused (and awake!), the head nod would increase my focus and give me more energy.

To illustrate: I’m listening to a political speaker in the Middle East at a private gathering in the afternoon on a hot day. With the hot day and my mid-afternoon food coma, I can’t keep my eyes open. This is a fairly intimate gathering and this guy is going to see me fall asleep right in front of him.

I start nodding my head like one of those goofy bobble heads. Right then, the speaker  zeroes in on me and picks up both his speed and enthusiasm!

As we file out, he cuts through the group, approaches me, shakes my hand, and says, “Next time you are here, please let me know!“

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Causing the Other Side to Pause and Reflect with a “No” Head Nod

On the flip side, nothing will stop someone in their tracks more than a “no” head nod.  

Be careful with it because it is effectively a confrontation, and you need to be ready to follow it right up with an I know application of tactical empathy.  

After you give a disagreeing head nod, you’ll need to say something like: I know this is important to you and you have a reason for saying that. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I have some concerns. (And follow that with dynamic silence.)

Follow their lead as to how to continue from here. If they simply remain silent themselves, say: How should we proceed?

Your body language, which you have control over, can be used to amplify affirmative feelings, and it can also be used to amplify disagreement. 

But what about the other side’s body language?

Body Language as an Indicator

You can learn a lot from your adversary’s nonverbal cues.

Their Discomfort and the Richest Source of Data

If your opponent has multiple people on their side, the person not speaking  will be the richest source of honest reactions. As long as they don’t feel the glare of attention on them, they will be very unguarded and may even try to signal their discomfort to their own side.

Two law firms were in merger negotiations. During one of the breaks, a junior associate from Law Firm A said, “Did anyone notice that when Clause X is mentioned, someone from the other side always coughs?”

It turned out that “Clause X” was an overlooked critical issue. As soon as it was brought to light, it changed everything.

Their Lack of Reaction

The other side’s lack of reaction is often an indicator that you are on the right track. To confirm that’s the case, mislabel intentionally, and compare the reaction.

To do this label their affect—which, we are defining as the observable manifestation of the emotions in their body-language shifts, facial expressions, and tone of voice. 

Affects are indicators. A “stone face” is often an indicator things are going in the right direction.  

Conversely, if it might be skepticism, label it!

Remember, people love to correct! It’s a Law of Negotiation Gravity. It’s just too emotionally satisfying to correct—to the point that it may as well be one of the seven deadly sins!

And when they do try to correct, they tend to correct extremely honestly. 

Remember, tactical empathy is not about you, it’s about them. While you are afraid of embarrassment over being wrong, they are ridiculously satisfied at getting a chance to be correct.

People don’t remember what you said. They remember how you made them feel. And you just made them feel awesome! 


A big deal has been made about “tells” (to use a poker term). The real issue is context—and this is actually how a polygraph works.

A polygraph operator is supposed to ask you a series of control questions that you should answer truthfully. This lays down your baseline for truth-telling. We all pretty much tell the truth “the same way” every time. 

You may lie seven different ways, but you tell the truth one way (if you tell the truth).

Then when you deviate from that one way, that’s at least an indicator of the information being filtered and not coming out straight and unvarnished. It’s a potential indicator of deception—or at least hesitation.

But there could be many, many reasons for hesitation. This is where people get into trouble because it’s too easy to assume the worst. Keep in mind that someone could still tell the truth after hesitating. 

The other side may flinch because they are holding back, or they may flinch because they have been pushed to their limit.

So, what are you to do with the observable info?

Don’t attack them. Use labels instead!

Attacking only makes them regret that they revealed anything to you. It destroys rapport and trust. 

So use labels like this: It seems you’re hesitant. 

What about when the other side doesn’t offer up any tells or affect changes? Label that, too.

It seems like I’m off track. It seems like you’re thinking about it. It seems like I haven’t earned your trust yet.

Labels need to be followed by dynamic silence so that you don’t step on a great label and short-circuit its effect.

The Power of the Last Impression

The takeaway from all this? Body language is both an amplifier and an indicator. People don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel. 

Use your observations of their body language to show them that you are attentive and to make them feel like you understand them. Then, let your observations gently sink in. The last impression is the lasting impression, so make it a good one.

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