Getting in Sync
Est. time: 20 min.
- Spotting nonverbal cues in negotiation
- Seeing how parties’ nonverbal behavior can mesh or clash
- Understanding unconscious mutual influence (both positive and negative)
Sometimes talking with a stranger, you may feel instantaneous rapport. It can happen in social encounters and in business meetings. It’s a sense of being comfortable with another person and knowing that they are comfortable with you. In the vernacular, it’s being on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, there are other times when the opposite is true. At some level you register another person’s unease and that makes you uncomfortable, as well. That’s being out of sync.
How well negotiators connect with one another can promote agreement or hamper it. Are the parties empathetic or detached? Are they trusting or wary? This module describes intriguing new research that shows how the on how the answers to such questions sometimes matter more than the substantive issues that negotiators are trying to resolve.
Click here to hear a description of some recent studies.
Negotiation is much more than the exchange of information (e.g., offers and demands, threats and apologies. As you will see shortly in an unscripted video clip, it is also a behavioral dance, where the way that each person comports him or herself influences other people’s actions and attitudes.
Sometimes this mutual influence is positive. Other times, not. One negotiator’s natural warmth may open a counterpart who is normally reserved. A constructive relationship may blossom. In another case, if someone else’s defensiveness is misread as hostility, a negative interaction may ensue. Often these behavioral patterns aren’t fully recognized (or intended) by the parties, yet their impact can be profound.
The upcoming video of three business school students in a real estate negotiation exercise is unscripted. After you see it, will be prompted to comment on the interaction. On the right is Nils, working on his own, representing a prospective retail tenant (called “Discount Marketplace”) in a proposed regional shopping center. Across the table, representing the project developer, is a two-person team: Daniel is on the far left and David is in the middle.
In this scenario they have been brought in to resolve the last remaining issue in negotiating a long-term lease between their two companies. The sticking point is the “use, assignment, and subletting” clause. These are the terms that define the rights and responsibilities of the contracting parties. (If you have already completed the Negotiating How to Negotiate module, you have already watched two pairs of professional negotiators addressing the same problem.)
Don’t worry about the substance of this negotiation. Focus instead on how the parties interact. For what it’s worth, Nils is interested in reaching agreement, but is under less pressure to do so than are Daniel and David.
You likely noted that Daniel (the developer seated in the middle) did most of the talking in the first minutes of the video clip. It’s not clear if this was intentional on his part. Some research studies suggest that negotiators in a weaker position tend to talk more than stronger ones do. They may feel the need to justify their claim to a fair deal. By contrast, those who are more secure expect to get a good outcome, so are under less pressure.
Some previous viewers credit David for setting a positive tone and emphasizing that both parties share an interest in ensuring the success of the new shopping center. Nils (the prospective tenant on the right) is positive, as well. Did you note, for example, how he affirmed David’s early comment that they already “have had a couple of go’s back and forth” to finalize the lease? Even before David finishes that sentence, Nils jumps in with a positive comment: “We’ve come a long way.”
At other points Nils nods his head in affirmation. A bit later, though, he reminds the developers of the greater size (and power) of his own company by saying that this project would be store number 201 for them. Then noting his experience, he adds, “I’ve been here before.”
Throughout all this Daniel has been quiet (though he gets more involved later). With a team, letting one member open the conversation may be wise, rather than having two attempt a duet. But here Daniel’s eyes are down. He seems absorbed in his notes. Perhaps he is checking some important information. (Or he also may be aware of the camera.) One can be silent, of course, but signal engagement by displaying close attention.
It is easy to observe these patterns—who’s doing the talking and how others are responding—when viewing a video of strangers. But monitoring interpersonal dynamics is more challenging when you are an active participant with a personal interest in the outcome.
After the three students completed the negotiation exercise, they were asked to review the video and select several critical segments that they wanted to analyze with the instructor. One of these moments was the opening clip that you just saw.
In the debriefing, the instructor stopped it exactly where the clip ends here. “Did you see that?” he asked. He wasn’t noting the seating arrangement. Nor was he commenting on how David did most of the talking. In fact, what he observed could have been seen with the audio turned off.
Did anything about their physical behavior catch your own eye? If not, go back and rerun the clip, this time without the sound. Sit back as if you were in the balcony. Rather than concentrate on any one individual, try to see them as one entity, an evolving organization taking shape.
Perhaps you caught it this time. Perhaps not. In any event, here’s what the instructor showed the students when he replayed the tape. These are freeze frame images of four moments, several seconds apart.
Now it should be clear. Within a matter of seconds, Nils’s behavior—putting a hand on his chin—had migrated to Daniel, back to Nils, and then over to David. At the end, in little more than 20 seconds, they are now leaning into the conversation.
It’s notable that these three people weren’t aware of this mirroring when it happened. Nor did they see it when they first reviewed the video—or even the third time around with the instructor. They were amazed. And naturally they wondered what it meant.
The question, however, is not whether putting your hand to your chin is a sign of ease or discomfort. Individual gestures like that are usually ambiguous. What’s significant is that the three people were doing the same thing at the same time. It’s called mirroring, which closely related to a phenomenon called emotional contagion.
Our facial expressions and body posture reflect our mood. Other people pick up on that, often unconsciously. Research shows that when subjects sit in a room with someone else who is relaxed and serene, they calm down, too. By contrast, if one person is anxious and fidgety, whoever joins them is likely to become more tense, at least to a degree.
It's obvious that physical behavior is contagious between people. (Just think about how quickly after one person yawns, others nearby will do the same.) Less visibly, but just as powerfully, moods and emotions migrate, as well. Depending on their nature, those factors can foster productive relationships or stifle connection.
Negotiation is a process of mutual influence. The on-going interaction can be useful or counterproductive. It may serve as a platform for finding mutually advantageous solutions. Or it may turn a negotiation into a battle in which each party’s prime objective is besting the other.
Whether the parties develop a smooth relationship or a hostile one is never in a single person’s control. Others with whom they deal will have their own styles and agendas. Nevertheless, effective negotiators recognize whether or not they are in sync with their counterparts. How people talk (their tone, how loudly they speak, and whether they balance talking with listening) can be as important as their explicit statements.
In this complex dance, strive to lead and encourage constructive behavior. But be prepared to follow, as well, if your counterpart is more attuned to a different pace or rhythm.
- Benedict Carey, "You Remind Me of Me," New York Times, February 12, 2008.
- Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, 2007.
- Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, 2000.
- Marian L. Houser, Sean M. Horan and Lisa A. Furler, Predicting Relational Outcomes: An Investigation of Thin Slice Judgments in Speed Dating, Human Communication, A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 69–81.
- Adam Kramer, Jamie Guillory, and Jeffrey Hancock, "Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, June 2014.
- Alex “Sandy” Pentland, The New Science of Building Great Teams, Harvard Business Review, 2012.
- Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Video: Alex Pentland DV, Enterprise Forum, uploaded Jan 7, 2009.
- Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Video: Authors@Google: Alex (Sandy) Pentland, uploaded Jan 20, 2009.
- Michael A. Wheeler, Nonverbal Communication in Negotiation, Harvard Business School Publishing, September 14, 2009.