Getting ahead in negotiations: Reading and controlling body language

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5 May 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Wild elephant in the beautiful forest at Kanchanaburi province in Thailand

The most skilled poker players can win even when they’re holding a terrible hand. That’s because they know how to read their opponents’ body language and control their own. They’ll pick up on the smallest signs, or ‘tells’, to recognise whether the other people at the table feel confident or worried, if they’re telling the truth or bluffing.

Body language says a lot. Up to 90% of communication is non-verbal, so to those who know how to read it, body language broadcasts whether someone is comfortable or uncomfortable, happy or sad, strong or afraid. If you’re regularly negotiating with clients, being able to read their body language and hear what they aren’t saying can be a very powerful tool in your arsenal.

Of course, this isn’t just a technique for sales and meetings, but also for networking, socialising and developing your people skills. We’re here to guide you through how to start using body language to increase the impact you make on others.


Calibrating to their style

In order to read and react to people’s body language, you first need to understand it. There are many universal signs – such as smiling when happy and shouting when angry – but we all have our own individual styles. We’re all made of a unique blend of our upbringing, culture and surroundings, so you can’t walk into a room making unproven assumptions about a person and how they act.

There’s a process called ‘Calibration,’ where you take time to observe and identify patterns in a person’s behaviour. This is effectively understanding their baseline reactions to certain stimuli. When someone’s in a good mood, take note of their posture, standing or sitting positions, what they do with their hands, how they’re speaking and the tone of their voice, and the gestures they make. Then wait to compare these with when they’re in a bad mood, stressed, worried, excited and so on.

For people you see regularly, this lets you calibrate to their behaviour and to understand the link between their feelings and their actions. You’ll be able to look and get a sense of what they’re feeling, without them even saying anything.

For people you only meet once, it’s harder to fully calibrate to their style. However, over the course of a conversation or meeting, you may be able to start identifying certain patterns. For instance, does the way they sit change when they’re talking about something they’re passionate about, or when they’re listening to something that seems to bore them? Even the smallest observations can put you in a stronger position when negotiating.


Building rapport

Rapport is when you develop a positive connection with another person. This leads to a certain synchronicity where you both feel comfortable with each other, establishing an (often unspoken) understanding. You find the same things interesting, offensive, funny and so on. This can happen naturally when people get to know each other, but in a negotiation setting it can be prudent to actively speed the process up. When you have rapport and mutual respect with someone, they’ll lower some of their defences.

Once you’ve managed to calibrate to the other person, you can start using this insight to see when they’re feeling more or less comfortable. If you see them adopting a stance reserved for when they’re relaxed, you know whatever you’re doing or saying is hitting the mark. If their body language shows they’re becoming more agitated, bored or offended, you know to try a different approach.


Matching and Mirroring

That sense of rapport with another person commonly occurs via a subconscious realisation you’re on the same page as each other – often from reacting in the same way or feeling enough similarities that it puts you both at ease. This creates an interesting opportunity to use the techniques of ‘matching’ and ‘mirroring’ to speed up, and deliberately influence, the process.

Matching is the process of observing how someone’s acting, and trying to behave in a similar way. For example, if they’re standing or sitting in a particular pose, you can adjust your own position to do the same thing. If they use a specific gesture to make a point, you can also use that gesture later in the conversation to make your own point. You can even match the volume, formality and style of how they speak.

Don’t think of this as exact mimicry. It’s more of a show of agreement with their non-verbal communication. If someone tells a joke, you’d laugh to indicate your approval. Matching their body language is a similar way of displaying that you’re on the same wavelength. Subconsciously, this builds rapport and makes the other person feel more comfortable with you.

Mirroring takes this to the next level. Rather than adopting small aspects of their behaviour, you copy them exactly, creating a mirror image. This has the potential to be much more effective at showing the synchronicity between you both. However, it has higher risks too. If they notice what you’re doing, it can make them uncomfortable or seem like you’re mocking them. For both matching and mirroring, wait at least 20-30 seconds before copying an action or phrase. It’s more likely to go unnoticed than if you do it immediately.

These techniques can be taken a step further. After matching or mirroring them for a little while, they may begin to match your own actions back at you without realising. This means you can start affecting how they feel and assert some influence over the conversation. When people feel defensive, they use closed up body language. However, open body language can make people feel more positive and relaxed. If you can use mirroring techniques to make your negotiation partner relax, this may help your conversation.


Common body language to look out for

We’ve already explained that we’re all individuals and everyone’s body language and reactions will be unique. This is true and you should keep this in mind at all times. And yet, there are some expressions which are relatively universal and can act as a good starting point – especially if you haven’t had time to calibrate to someone new.

Common signs someone feels uncomfortable is if they touch their neck or ventilate themselves (e.g. pulling on a shirt collar), rub their hands together or suck in their lips. These are all linked to evolutionary tactics of protecting vital organs when feeling under threat.

Signs of confidence include having a straight back and making themselves larger, such as sitting with their knees spread wide or putting their arms over the chair next to them. These are territorial displays of dominance. Conversely, if someone hunches over and makes themselves seem smaller by tucking their limbs closely in, it’s signalling their lack of confidence.

Learning forwards in their chair shows either focus and interest or a confidence to push themselves towards your personal space. Whereas, learning away from you can show that they’re either disinterested or they’re trying to escape your physical influence. Arms and legs crossed in front of them can equally represent a barrier between you and them.

It’s important to always remember that just because someone acts in a way you’ve learn to recognise as being tied to a certain emotion, doesn’t automatically mean you know the trigger. It might be what you just said, or they might have seen something else going on in the room or have been reminded of something that happened to them earlier in the day. Learning to read body language can be a good tool for judging how things are going in a negotiation – or any social encounter – but it doesn’t suddenly let you read minds.


Consider your own signals

The master poker player doesn’t only know how to read his opponents, they’ve also learnt their own tells so they can minimise and hide them. In a meeting, while you’re trying to read information from other people, they’ll be trying to read yours. Become actively conscious of your own body language. You’re giving off just as many signals as everyone else, so think about what you’re saying with your posture, voice, movements and actions.

Of course, it’s hard to see yourself. Looking in the mirror only goes so far, because you’re not in a genuine or natural situation. Watch others, see what they do and try to become mindful of your own small motions. What do you do when you’re feeling particularly confident or nervous?

Once you know the story you’re telling through your own movements, you can begin to control them. Understanding what your triggers are and what you do when feeling nervous is a starting point for training yourself to act more confidently.

As they say: fake it until you make it. If you know that in uncomfortable conversations you tend to cross your arms, make a deliberate effort to keep them uncrossed and adopt a pose of confidence. It might have the added effect of actually making you start to feel more confident, and it will certainly give others that impression.


There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance to this, so don’t expect to be an expert right away. Just try deliberately looking out for how people act and move in a range of scenarios, and see what patterns you discover. Very quickly, you’ll be able to use body language as a new tool in negotiations and build rapport with clients and contacts much more easily.


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