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Reading Signals in Negotiation

Tyler Hall

At Scotwork we talk a great deal about picking up on ‘signals’ during negotiation. These signals are glimpses into the other parties areas of flexibility which usually come in the form of qualifying words, body language and questions. The ability to discover areas of flexibility is always of great benefit when you are in a negotiation. 


You may read this and think that you always pick these things up. However, I would say that when discussions begin, the majority of people miss almost all of these signals. You really have to be so focused in terms of your listening skills to be able to pick these things up. And if you are in a lead/speaking role during the negotiation it’s even more challenging, as you are often thinking about what to do or say next and may not be listening fully. 


Let’s break down the 3 areas where we regularly see signals. 


Qualifying Words 

People cannot help but show areas of flexibility just by the words they use. Some examples:  


“That would be very difficult.”  They didn’t say they can’t do it, but often we hear it that way. If you hear them say this, you should test that signal! For example: “I understand it would be difficult but are there any circumstances under which we could make it happen?”. 


“I can provide that for a price of around $30 per tonne.” - There are actually three signals here. Firstly the use of “I”. That may be the price they can give you, but what can their manager offer? Also, “around” is not a specific word in relation to that number which shows flexibility and lastly “$30” is a suspiciously round number. What number do I know I’m not paying after picking up these signals? $30. 


Body Language 

There are a few nasty body language tricks out there but if you know the other person well go with your gut and read their body language.  


Watch for nodding, particularly when they haven’t been previously. This tells you that whatever you just mentioned is of likely of high interest or probably agreeable.  


If they’ve been leaning in towards you but then move back in their chair, this may demonstrate that you’re pushing on a difficult or unfavourable topic.  


If their eyes are glancing to the ceiling or top corners, this usually shows uncertainty or that potentially you may not be getting the full story. 



People don’t ask questions just for fun. There is a reason that drives the question and they are signalling that that is of some importance to them by asking it. It’s easy enough just to answer the question at face value but it can very powerful to test the signal behind that question. For example, if someone asked, “Do you have expertise in XYZ?” it would be easy to respond, “yes or no”. But that question is a buying signal, so go ahead and test it, “Yes we do have expertise in XYZ, could you let me know a bit more about why you would need that?” By testing that signal we are now exploring important information relating to the scope of work. 


So in summary - keep your listening skills up, look out for signals and when you hear them test them for flexibility. In doing so, you’ll uncover so much more information that will grow the value of your deal. 


Happy negotiating. 

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