What Does Your Body Language Say When You Negotiate?

Author: David McMillin       

Whether you’re interviewing for a new job or discussing the details of a contract for an upcoming conference, you have most likely rehearsed your talking points for the conversation to make sure that you can articulate your position with confidence. However, Melissa Jones Briggs, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, believes that words play a smaller role than body language when it comes to establishing a sense of authority.

“When our verbal cues are misaligned with our physical cues, we always believe the body,” Jones Briggs told viewers in the recent PCMA webinar “The Secret Language of Power.” “The body speaks first and loudest — especially around status.”

Jones Briggs highlighted some of the key displays of high-status body language: holding eye contact, occupying a maximum amount space, leaning back, and moving smoothly. People who have high status in a relationship feel comfortable interrupting and talking matter-of-factly about topics that others might find offensive. While many might associate these behaviors with high-powered executives, Jones Briggs pointed out that status and power are not synonymous. “Status is the quality of your relationship with people,” she said. “Power is derived from authority or status. You have more control over your status.”

“You may not be able to give yourself a promotion, but you do control your status,” Jones Briggs added. “You can raise and lower your status, and you can raise or lower other people’s.”

Establishing a higher sense of status in a negotiation isn’t as simple as standing tall and offering a firm handshake, though. “You cannot walk into your next meeting in a power pose and expect to win the negotiation,” she said. “There is an art to navigating complex power dynamics.”

Determining the most appropriate route around those dynamics starts with debunking a big myth: Every individual craves power. “There is a myth that all people are constantly trying to gain the highest possible position in every situation,” she said. “The truth is that not everyone wants power. In fact, most people prefer being the second-most powerful person in [the situation].”

An informal poll taken during the webinar confirmed that many people enjoy the No. 2 position. It eliminates the pressures of being responsible when something goes wrong. “It’s important for you to recognize your own [power] preference,” Jones Briggs said, “because it affects your behavior.”

Interested in more insights to help you become a more respected event professional? Check out the PCMA Media Library. A subscription offers access to hundreds of OnDemand webinars like “The Secret Language of Power.” And if you’re looking for more negotiation tips in other cultures, be sure to read the CMP Series feature from the November issue of Convene.