How to Use Psychology for Effective Negotiations

Dennis Relojo-Howell

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Like in most other communications, negotiation is much more than the words you speak. Your demeanour, body language, and non-verbal cues matter as much as your words.

As you 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. This, in turn, can lead to beneficial agreements.

Dress the part

First impressions count and may have an impact on the outcome of the negotiations. In most deliberation instances, you may want to choose to dress for power.


Most business settings are nowadays relaxed on dress codes. However, a bold, professional look may convey your reliability and trustworthiness. A well-groomed, 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 in the meeting that they are important enough to dress up for

Practise consistency

How you behave reflects your core values. Consistent positive behaviour shows your integrity, honesty, and reliability.

Trade partners, suppliers, and customers are more likely to trust talks with you if you practice consistency. Being consistent doesn’t mean being perfect. Being consistent assures others you can be trusted when you point out the challenges you’re likely to face in implementing an agreement. Consistency projects a reliable commitment to address said challenges.

When your historical choices are consistent, you may gain a psychological advantage since your partners feel they know you and can trust your word. Other negotiators may be more willing to make concessions when they know you are trustworthy.

Pay attention to body language

Psychology courses can prepare negotiators to read body language to direct and influence deliberation outcomes. Body language goes both ways. You need to be mindful of your own body language as well as that of others. To gauge the psychology of others in discussions, study the following:

Baseline behaviour

Take time to know the people you’re deliberating with. 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, which may become important for drawn-out discussions requiring many meetings
  • Frequency and genuineness of smiles and other facial expressions
  • Body posture displayed when relaxed, excited, and bored, etc
  • 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 may include:

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

Disengagement and withholding behaviours may include:

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

Stress behaviours may suggest bluffing, irritability and discomfort. Some stress indicators include:

  • Tightly crossed ankles
  • High vocal tones
  • Fidgeting
  • Licking of 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 and the deceiver often pays off.

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 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 you have a baseline, as discussed above, you are likely to 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 your power of perception and boost your influence in consultations. The right words have the power to alter the psychology of those you’re in discussions with.

To drive talks towards a mutually beneficial collaboration, start using partnership terminology. In fact, don’t even call your meeting a negotiation. Call it cooperation, partnership, or collaboration. Others may subconsciously condition their thinking to reach the same goals.

Use plural pronouns, especially in the first person. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was found that words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘everyone’ have a subliminal effect in getting people to work together. With a collaborative mindset, deliberators are likely to find it easier to create value and work towards win-win agreements.  

Final thoughts

Studying the psychology of other negotiators can work to your advantage. People don’t always say what they mean. In deliberations, it’s important to decode what others are saying. It’s equally important for you to communicate clearly with both words and actions.

Use body language, smart dressing, consistency, and partnership terminologies to affect the psychological mood of your negotiations. Read others’ psychology to get a great deal, create mutually beneficial agreements, and build lasting relationships.


Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today. 


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