Illusionist Derren Brown has built a career on his ability to read people's microexpressions and influence people ©Getty Images
Illusionist Derren Brown has built a career on his ability to read people's microexpressions and influence people ©Getty Images

Can reading faces make you an expert negotiator?

2 June 2023

Picture the scene: you’re deep in conversation and all signs suggest the other person is interested. They’re smiling, their pupils are dilated, and they appear to be mirroring your movements. Then they lean in, take your hand and say: “It’s a deal.”

But this is no love connection, it's a business meeting – though according to Tim Jenkins, director at A Head Space, they may not be all that different. The easiest way to learn about non-verbal communications in business is to compare it to dating, he suggests. Behaviours such as mimicking have been shown to increase the chances of successful negotiation from 12.5% to more than 67%, a study by INSEAD Business School. And Jenkins says controlling those signals is an area almost every buyer he has trained needs to work on.

While 93% of communication is non-verbal, it isn’t all about body language. Tone of voice, for example, is about 38% of what you say. Non-verbal cues generally fall into six areas: voice, face, gestures, word content, interactive style, and psychophysiological signals (such as sweating). But as behaviours differ significantly among individuals, the real benefit comes from knowing a person well enough to recognise when their signals are unusual.

Deals are not all talk 

When it comes to vocal and visual cues, trainer and voice teacher Janie van Hool advises not to stop at the body because there are at least nine areas to consider. “Jewellery or ornaments, your glasses, your haircut all play their part. The way people use their gestures tells you a lot about [their] enthusiasm or advocacy, whether they are blocking or pacifying. Also, how close we like being with each other, how much eye contact we’re happy to make,” she says.

For van Hool, the critical moment for sending non-verbal cues comes at the very start of an interaction, so the moment you walk into a room or join a video call, you have to make it count. “If you are in a situation where you are negotiating a contract, for example, you’ve got to be really aware of the tells that are very obvious. I’m often interested in people’s feet – their hands or the table in front of them might be very relaxed but you can tension in their feet or they are holding them at a funny angle,” she says.

As van Hool says, the skill is based on spotting inconsistencies and intuiting when words don’t match up with actions. “It’s amazing sometimes how unaware people are of their giveaways. You see women, for example, pulling on their hair, which is a big indicator of discomfort. From a voice perspective, stuttering or not being able to get words out means people are managing themselves and may not be saying what they really want to say.”

Do microexpressions help? 

In recent years attention has fallen on techniques such as reading microexpressions – the small and fleeting facial muscle movements which are claimed to give away what a person is really thinking. But focusing on minutiae is a risky tactic. “I’m a huge fan of [US psychologist] Paul Ekman, whose research is the originating research behind microexpressions,” says van Hool. She explains they can give you a hunch something is worth exploring but that it’s “almost impossible” to maintain this level of scrutiny, especially when you risk missing the bigger and possibly more important signals. “It can be amazing what you might pick up, even if you can’t apply absolutes because you are dealing with human beings.”

Another caution is that while Ekman established his work in the 1970s, today’s business people operate in more global and diverse environments. For instance, cultural background plays a powerful role in our automatic responses, as does neurodivergence. In the past, reluctance to make eye contact would have been quickly put down to insincerity or even lying, but that may not be the case if sustained eye contact is considered rude or if the other person is made uncomfortable by it. “If you’ve got someone in a room who is neurodiverse, they may really struggle with eye contact but that doesn’t mean they are being dishonest or shifty in some way. We can’t apply absolutes here.” Again, it pays to understand who you are meeting with so you can focus on what is normal, or not, for that individual.

A winning tack

For the best chance of success, van Hool recommends avoiding power moves previously a common way to show strength and reliability. Instead, she says simply aim to appear trustworthy. “I’ve been very interested in the work of Susan Fiske [another American psychologist and university processor], and she says that to build trust you have to be able to demonstrate warmth before you try and convince through competence. In highly charged situations, we often find people try to square off against each other,” van Hool says. “I encourage people to think about how they can demonstrate ease, engagement, warmth, curiosity – these are the things that take people to a place where they can be understood, and then you’re much more likely to be able to persuade them.”

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