Non-Verbal Communication in Negotiations

Negotiation is an important part of any communication, including those that occur in business. As negotiation refers to an act of bargaining between different parties, it can happen in international, formal, and informal settings, with various minor and major contexts (Shumskaya, 2018). Negotiations can be characterized by verbal (VC) and non-verbal communication (NVC), with the former being perceived as more significant (Helmold et al., 2020). While the role of non-verbal communication is sometimes omitted, it is crucial in negotiations.

First, one should compare non-verbal and verbal communication to assess their importance. VC is often paid more attention to, as it is perceived to be completed by NVC (Orzeaţă, 2018). However, research shows that contradictions between the two can compromise the goal of communication (Orzeaţă, 2018). For a successful negotiation, each party should pay attention to the way they send and receive messages (Orzeaţă, 2018). For example, NVC, like certain gestures, can stress outspoken words, whereas signals such as nodding one’s head serve as a repetition of words, giving them more value (Helmold et al., 2020). While VC may play a bigger role, it is not simply completed but is rather balanced by NVC (Orzeaţă, 2018). Therefore, there is a need to examine non-verbal communication and its implementation in strategies that can be used in negotiations.

Second, one should analyze the nature of non-verbal communication. As other ways of sending signals, people use NVC for direct psychological reactions, and spontaneous and deliberate emotional expressions (Shumskaya, 2018). Research suggests that human expressive behavior is mostly unconscious and unintentional, referring to sending certain signals but also spontaneously reacting to them (Shumskaya, 2018). Furthermore, NVC is characterized by an “honest nature,” meaning that body language is usually uncontrollable and relatively difficult to fake (Shumskaya, 2018, p. 2). Regardless of the causes behind it, NVC expressed in facial expressions, postures, gestures, and even eye movements can enhance or diminish social interactions (Shumskaya, 2018). While non-verbal communication is important, it is not always beneficial, planned, or controlled.

Furthermore, there is a need to assess non-verbal communication in negotiations. During a negotiation, each party has to control its own words and movements while monitoring the opponent’s behavior (Shumskaya, 2018). Although negotiators sometimes strive to disregard feelings as irrelevant to business situations, people unconsciously trace certain aspects of body language that can reflect emotions (Helmold et al., 2020). However, research shows that people may not always effectively act on the feedback of others’ behavior or change their non-verbal cues (Shumskaya, 2018). Therefore, it is crucial to learn to read one’s non-verbal signs carefully and keep in mind that not all reactions are equally relevant.

A certain aspect of the translation of non-verbal communication needs to be considered before analyzing its signs at negotiation. As reading body language has become quite common in the modern world, a lot of people strive to implement it in their lives but may make mistakes in the process of doing so (Moir, 2020). There are differences between most people, who try to assess interpersonal moral issues, and experts, who can make a diagnostic evaluation (Moir, 2020). While the former are more likely to falsely interpret signs of NVC due to a lack of knowledge, the latter focus on a person’s medical conditions (Moir, 2020). However, a business needs to consult with an experienced specialist who can detect and decode body language in ways that trained employees may not recognize.

Before the negotiation, people should learn to understand the signs of non-verbal communication. While NVC is important in negotiations, its signs are difficult to detect and decode, so beginners should start by analyzing body, face, and eye characteristics (Helmold et al., 2020). Body postures, whether sitting or standing, can indicate one’s emotions. For example, a sitting person who leans forward, nodding their head along with the conversation, exhibits openness and readiness to listen (Helmold et al., 2020). Furthermore, gestures refer to movements of certain body parts and can be voluntary and involuntary, such as folded arms as not a welcoming gesture (Helmold et al., 2020). However, the meanings of some body movements and gestures, like finger gestures and handshakes, vary in different countries and cultures (Helmold et al., 2020). Before the negotiation, it is important to study one’s opponents and determine which non-verbal communication signs would be more suitable and appropriate to use.

There are some aspects of non-verbal communication that can be noticed concerning one’s emotions. For instance, signs such as tightened jaws, stiff facial muscles, and thumbing the table with tight fists can indicate aggression (Moir, 2020). On the other hand, crossed legs and tightly folded arms symbolize defensive behavior (Moir, 2020). If one exhibits signs like keeping their head and chin down, having their palms open, and nodding much more frequently than appropriate, then they are in a submissive state (Moir, 2020). However, it is crucial to detect and combine as many signs as possible since some are common for different emotions. In particular, tightened jaws indicate not only aggression but also show that a person is upset, as well as thumping a fist on the table also exhibits power (Moir, 2020). Moreover, one can be perceived as upset if one avoids eye contact, but such behavior can also reflect a nervous condition. Furthermore, most of the mentioned signs are banal and “somewhat obvious,” but at the same time, maybe often be omitted during communication (Moir, 2020, p. 330). Overall, one should make conclusions based on a combination of signs.

Non-verbal communication can be detected at any point of the negotiation, but some of those points are more crucial than others. Particularly, during the first few seconds of social interaction, people can quickly interpret the NVC message and process it with little cognitive control (Hall et al., 2019). Moreover, research suggests that one can make trait judgments within 100 ms of exposure to a face (Hall et al., 2019). Furthermore, unlike VC, people cannot avoid NVC since one’s cues or even their absence can be interpreted by others within seconds (Hall et al., 2019). However, such interpretations can be both accurate and inaccurate and can even change over time with the use of more cognitive resources and increased conscious awareness (Hall et al., 2019). It is important to monitor one’s non-verbal communication signs from the start of negotiation and be careful in decoding those signs.

As mentioned above, non-verbal communication is naturally unconscious and difficult to control, making it challenging to implement successfully. However, most people do not typically receive feedback on their body language or do not know what certain movements exhibit (Shumskaya, 2018). Therefore, it is helpful for employees to complete training on NVC, explaining how to monitor non-verbal signals and use collected information to prevent conflicts (Shumskaya, 2018). It has been stated before that people may not always change their non-verbal behavior after viewing others; therefore, they should focus on verbal signals and prepare appropriate solutions in advance (Shumskaya, 2018). Moreover, as people tend to seek information that confirms their beliefs, the training has to be done by an experienced specialist with a focus on critically decoding signals of NVC (Vrij et al., 2019). Despite certain concerns, training in non-verbal communication can prepare employees for future negotiations.

Although people may not correctly interpret signs of non-verbal communication at first, those interpretations can become more reliable. In particular, one’s ability to accurately decode a person’s body language and facial expressions can be examined by interpersonal accuracy (IPA) (Hall et al., 2019). IPA focuses on recognizing emotions, distinguishing lies from the truth, and judging personality, dominance, and social status (Hall et al., 2019). Training is a way of improving one’s IPA and can be effective in a nonclinical population (Hall et al., 2019). Such training should include a combination of instructions on NVC, practice, and feedback but take less than an hour per session (Hall et al., 2019). Training is meant to teach employees to detect and decode signs of non-verbal communication so that they can use collected information for the company’s benefit.

To summarize, although non-verbal communication is sometimes perceived as less important, it balances verbal communication and is crucial in achieving the goal of the conversation, including successful negotiations. Although NVC happens naturally and its signs are difficult to detect and decode, one can improve their ability to interpret those signs with practice and feedback. Non-verbal communication can help change the course of negotiation by understanding the emotions of other parties involved and giving more value to the words.


Hall, J. A., Horgan, T. G., & Murphy, N. A. (2019). Nonverbal communication. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 271-294. Web.

Helmold, M., Dathe, T., Hummel, F., Terry, B., & Pieper, J. (Eds). (2020). Successful international negotiations: A practical guide for managing transactions and deals. Springer.

Moir, J. (2020). Reading the signs: Intersemioticity and non-verbal communication. Papers in Intersemiotic Translation, 1, 323-333. Web.

Orzeaţă, M. (2018). Ways of obtaining communication efficiency. International Journal of Communication Research, 8(3), 185-190. Web.

Shumskaya, N. (2018). Negotiation skills training intervention based on automated recognition of human emotion and non-verbal behaviour. Proceedings of the 32nd international BCS human computer interaction conference, 32. BCS Learning and Development. Web.

Vrij, A., Hartwig, M., & Granhag, P. A. (2019). Reading lies: Nonverbal communication and deception. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 295-317. Web.

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