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Negotiation: Body Language, Baselines, & Baloney

by Jeff Thompson
March 2013 Jeff Thompson

If you add up enough of the ‘little things’ they can make a big impact. This is no different with a negotiation. Los Angeles based negotiator Andrew Boughton recently shared with me some of the tips and advice he offers as part of his Edge Negotiation Group. He recently contributed to a chapter in the very influential book on nonverbal communication Nonverbal Communication: Science and Applications" edited by Matsumoto, Frank, and Hwang (read the review here).

Boughton’s chapter, and much of his work, deals with the nonverbal communication aspect of being an effective negotiator that can easily be summed up into three categories: body language, baselines, and (avoiding the use of profanity used in the title) lies.

Boughton shares, “Nonverbal communication can provide a huge advantage in any negotiation.” People’s body language can offer insight to people’s current emotions, attitudes and interests. Being aware of them, and your own, can help you adjust and proceed towards getting what you want.

Of the seven universal expressions (research has demonstrated that anger, happiness, disgust, contempt, fear, sadness, and surprise are displayed on people’s faces similarly regardless of a specific culture across the globe), happiness is something Boughton suggests to look for specifically.

“You have to constantly look for happiness leaking out of the other party indicating acceptance or at least pleasure with your proposal.”

Nonverbal communication “leakage”, or unintentional movements, are done subconsciously yet can give away important information. Boughton describes specific leakage (or as he calls it manipulators) actions to look out for including: scratching your nose/face, tapping your foot, clicking your pen, and shifting in your seat. When these occur at critical points in a negotiation, you weigh it against what is being spoken to determine, for example, a “hard no” or “soft no.”

Boughton gives an example here, and explains the best weigh to know the difference is by establishing a baseline of behavior and actions. Two examples include making small talk prior to the start of the negotiation by asking a non-related questions. If the person answers with a “hard no”, you have something to compare it to now.

Another example is looking for manipulators and when they occur. Research shows they often occur when the person is stressed and filled with anxiety (note, it does not mean lying). If it is displayed a certain moment, such as when they are making their “final” offer yet never displayed before, you might be able to push for more.

Finally, Boughton does not mince words when talking about negotiators and their actions- specifically their words. “People lie when they negotiate. They exaggerate, their strengths, conceal their weaknesses, and omit pertinent details in order to get a better deal.”

An effective way to determine what the lies and exaggerations are is being aware of the two parts of this article: being aware of the other party’s body language including leakage, and establishing a baseline.

Boughton offers three tips for accomplishing this: Prepare and teamwork. “I recommend proper preparation to establish your own strategy, position, moves, and responses. I also recommend using a team approach where one person is delegated the responsibilities of an observer. And the most important advice is to go slowly! I love the quote from John Wooden, ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry.’”

Next time you are involved in a negotiation, consider preparing first and make sure it includes setting your own goals, establishing their baseline, being away of their actions, and bring a partner along too. It has helped Boughton and his more than 15 years of experience of negotiating so it just might help you.


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)

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