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The Secret to Negotiating Is Reading People’s Faces


Jun. 16, 2016 Harvard Business Review

Although most of us like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers, ample research shows that emotions play an outsized role in negotiations. If you can’t read what your counterpart is feeling and instead focus only on what he or she is saying, you’re highly unlikely to achieve everything you could have.

Of course, experienced negotiators know how to mask their true feelings. They choose their words, tone, body language, and expressions carefully. To the average observer, they often appear neutral, impassive. Or they’re able to convincingly fake an emotion if they think it will help them advance their own interests.

However, there is a way to read what your counterpart is feeling even if they are deliberately trying to hide it from you. The secret is to pay attention to the spontaneous and involuntary microexpressions that rapidly flit across everyone’s faces at times of intense emotion. If you know what to look for, they can provide an instant, honest window into how your counterpart is feeling…

The good news is this isn’t an ability you either have or you don’t. You can learn it, and get better at it over time, with practices tests and in real-life negotiations by following some simple rules:

  • Focus on the face. The next time you ask an important question in a negotiation, focus on your counterpart’s face for at least four seconds, instead of just listening to the words coming out of his or her mouth.
  • Tell a story. Negotiators have an easier time controlling their expressions when they’re talking. So don’t ask too many open questions. Instead describe what you want or share an anecdote about another negotiating partner who shared concerns similar to theirs and watch how they respond as they listen. Their guard will lower a little and you’ll be able to see their honest reactions to what you’re saying — knowledge to guide the rest of the conversation.
  • Present multiple options. As you present a list of choices to negotiating partners, their microexpressions will reveal which they like and which they don’t, sometimes even before they’re consciously aware of their preferences. Watch closely to see what their face tells you about each option.
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