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Sales 101: When Negotiating, Pay Attention to Body Language

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Sales 101: When Negotiating, Pay Attention to Body Language

Your ability to recognize nonverbal cues at the negotiating table can mean the difference between a bad deal and a successful outcome in a sales negotiation

By Tony L. Callahan, Contributing Editor January 8, 2023
Paying attention to body language in home sales negotiations
Unlock the secrets of what someone’s nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, eye contact, eyebrow movement, as well as movements with their hands, feet, head, and even posture, are telling you during a sales negotiation. | Image: Microgen / stock.adobe.com
This article first appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Pro Builder.

Do you ever wish you knew what someone was thinking at the negotiating table? What if you knew someone was not being completely honest with you in a sales negotiation? That would improve your ability to get a fair deal from the other party, right?

Well, there is at least one thing you can do to improve your chances at the negotiating table: Become a student of body language. Do so, and you learn to unlock the secrets of what someone’s nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, eye contact, eyebrow movement, as well as movements with their hands, feet, head, and even posture, are telling you. There are several good books on the subject that I would recommend, including Body Language Secrets to Win More Negotiations, by Greg Williams and Spy the Lie, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero.

Body Language Cues and You

Remember that your body language speaks even when you don’t. If your lips are saying you need the other party to make a concession, but your nonverbals indicate you are desperate to make a deal, then you may be in trouble. (I say “may be” because even though some people are really bad at controlling their body language, others are just as bad at picking up on the subtle and even not so subtle clues.) Practice in front of a mirror or in front of a video camera until you are able to control your body language. Then you can focus on the other party.


For anyone who has control of their body language, I recommend face-to-face or video conference negotiations. It provides you so much more feedback from the other side of the table (or screen). However, if you don’t yet have that level of control or skill, use the phone and email as your primary negotiation methods until you have your nonverbals in sync with the words coming out of your mouth.

Who's Lying? How to Know

Some experts believe you can tell if a person is lying depending on which way they look with their eyes. I think that theory is too simple and is prone to misinterpretation. For example, I know a guy who fidgets a lot. He scratches the back of his head with both hands, shifts his eyes, and is generally an overanimated individual. However, when he lies, he looks you straight in the eye, emits a little sigh, and then leans in with total control of his nonverbal communication. When he does that, you know the next words out of his mouth are a lie.

Reading the Signs of Nonverbal Communication

In my experience, the best way to read someone isn’t if they look to the left or if they point their feet to the door or cross their arms, and so on. The best method of learning to read a person through their nonverbal communication is to get to know them; that is, pay close attention to their body language when they are not in the negotiating room.

Perhaps they’re on a sales call, at a trade show, or eating lunch with you. What does their body language look like when they are comfortable, being asked questions like, “What state do you live in?” or “Where did you go to school?” Then, compare that baseline to their body language when they’re asked tough questions, as well as questions you already know the answer to, and questions you know they won’t want to answer.

If they were not completely honest about the answer to a question you already know the answer to, how did their facial expression or eye contact change? What movements did they make with their head, arms, fingers, legs, feet, and torso? Did they smile or frown? Did they raise an eyebrow or look away? Shake their head or lean it to one side or the other? How did their breathing change?

Those who invest the time to hone their negotiating skills and research all of the pertinent data in a negotiation beforehand have a distinct advantage at the table.

Did they blush, fidget, scratch, or adjust their seat positioning? Perhaps they looked up or down or to the side in a way they didn’t do before. Did they blink their eyes more than before or keep their eyes closed for longer than before? Maybe they had their hands crossed or they uncrossed them? Tapped the table with their fingers? Cracked their knuckles? Rubbed their arm or leg? Perhaps they leaned back more in their chair, crossed or uncrossed their legs. Did they click their pen or perhaps put it in their mouth? Look for telltale signs of something they do when they are not being truthful.

This process will take a lot of effort on your part. Don’t be surprised if you feel exhausted after doing it for the first time. It takes concentration to listen to every word and watch every movement someone makes. Remember, you are looking for changes in their nonverbals when faced with different questions.


Are You Getting a Good Deal on Your Purchasing?

To me, it’s not what movement a person makes; everyone moves when they talk. The key is identifying those specific movements that change when someone is answering a question they don’t want to answer truthfully compared with one they do.

Professional poker players are masters at dialing into a competitor’s every movement. Ever wonder why some poker players wear sunglasses indoors while playing poker? They know they have a telltale sign and want to mask it.

Mastering Body Language Skills for Sales Negotiations

Nonverbals are a lot to take in and retain. Most of us are not able to remember little details for very long, so be sure to take good notes after your encounter with the other party. Add to those notes each time you have an interaction and review your notes before you enter the negotiating room.

Nonverbal communication can also be used to build rapport with the other party. Syncing your movements with the other party sends a subtle message that you are the same as they are. Subtly mimic the other party’s facial expressions and posture and how they use their arms, hands, legs, feet, and head.

For example, if they lean back in their chair, then you lean back in yours. If they cross their legs, you cross your legs, and so on. Remember to be subtle. Pause when they make a move, then subtly do the same. But don’t try to mimic every move; mimic just enough so the other party feels at ease. Believe me, it can set the tone for a negotiation.

Practice with your friends, co-workers, and family. Consider capturing your nonverbals on video so you can review and improve your telltale signals.

I often tell my team that a negotiation is won or lost before anyone sits down at the table. Those who invest the time to hone their negotiating skills and research all of the pertinent data in a negotiation beforehand have a distinct advantage at the table.

Walk unprepared into a negotiation with an experienced, prepared negotiator and they will eat your lunch. 


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Written By

Tony L. Callahan, CPSM, CSCP, has worked in the home building industry for nearly two decades and is an expert in purchasing and supply chain management.

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