Updated: Mar 31, 2020
By: Sara Nyström Lennqvist
Did you know that most people attend their business meetings blindfolded? Of course, not literally, but metaphorically speaking. We tend to focus on what is being said and miss many of the non-verbal signals that are constantly given to us and that are of great value.
We all have some sort of gut feeling that tells us whether something is positive or negative. For some of us it is easier to read other peoples’ emotions than for others. If you belong to the latter group there is no need to worry as everybody can train this skill. Actually, most people need to practice in order to be able to distinguish the very brief facial expressions that we all have, called micro expressions.
Micro expressions – a good way to recognize emotions
Micro expressions are involuntary facial muscle movements that last for half a second or shorter and reveal hidden emotions. Research has been conducted for over 50 years and show that micro expressions are universal, meaning that we all have them no matter where we come from. They are also subconscious and innate. This means that small babies don’t learn this skill. They know already from birth how to show emotions (even when born blind or deaf). Micro expressions are distinct from facial expressions in general in that they are universal, spontaneous, tough to fake, and last for only a fraction of second. As a consequence, they represent a very good way to recognize human feelings and emotions.
Emotions play an important role in negotiations
Most of us see ourselves as rational decision makers. However, research shows that emotions play an important role in negotiations. To be able to negotiate well we need to be able to deal with those emotions and utilize them to our advantage.
For example, people may become afraid during negotiations that they will be outwitted by the other party. They may become anxious about the consequences of the negotiations should they go against their goals. They may be hopeful that they will get what they want or surprised when they discover an aspect they were not aware of before the negotiations started. They may experience elation that they have prevailed through the negotiations, and equally, disappointed if they didn’t get what they had hoped for.
When we are able to recognize those emotions, we will gain an advantage as we are able to base our negotiation on the real needs. Therefore, we also increase the chances of finding a common ground. As a matter of fact, 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.
An honest window into how your counterpart is feeling
Experienced negotiators have learned how to mask their true feelings. They choose their words, tone, body language, and expressions carefully. To most observers, they often appear neutral. Or they are 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 micro expressions, 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.
Here are some examples of common micro expressions:
It is quite easy to recognize the meaning behind the expression on a still photo. However, in a real-life situation, when the stakes are high and the micro expression lasts for as little as one 25th of a second, it’s an entirely different game.
Effective negotiators are naturally good readers of micro expressions
One might theorize that one of the key differences between exceptional negotiators or salespeople and those who are merely average is the ability to read these micro expressions and strategically steer them toward a preferred outcome.
Studies conducted in various companies, in different countries, have shown precisely this. Those who score high on a non-verbal recognition test sell 20% more. In an international pharmaceutical company, the top three sales representatives scored on average 50% on the first Micro Expressions Test, while the lower-end sellers scored on average 5%. The persons who scored the best on the Micro Expressions Test also sold on average 25% more products compared to low scorers. In a top insurance company, it was found that the top-half of sales representatives had a 20% higher Micro Expressions Test score than the lower-half sellers.
Furthermore, a study conducted at a BMW showroom in Rome, Italy, showed that high performers (who had sold more than 60 automobiles in the most recent quarter) scored almost twice as high on the test as low performers. From all these studies we can conclude that effective negotiators seem to be naturally good readers of micro expressions.
"Emotional Intelligence is twice more important for success than technical and cognitive skills combined." – Daniel Goleman
The ability to read other peoples’ emotions can be improved
What if you don’t have this natural ability to read others? There is good news! Reading micro expressions isn’t an ability you either have or don’t have. Just like riding a bicycle or driving a car, you can learn it, practice, and get better at it over time. Actually, studies have shown that interactive training in reading micro expressions can increase your emotional intelligence (EQ) by an average of 10% in just four hours! The IQ you were born with remains the same throughout life, but your EQ can be increased.
3 Tips on How to Excel in Negotiations:
Pay attention to the face of your counterpart. When you ask an important question in a negotiation, make sure to pay attention to your counterpart’s face for at least four seconds, instead of just listening to the words. This is often a moment of surprise which the client is not prepared for. Your client must first decipher the meaning of your question before giving a verbal answer to it. By then, he or she has, subconciously, already shown a first true emotional reaction with the facial muscles.
Make your counterpart listen. During a negotiation it is easier to control our expressions when we are talking. So, don’t ask too many open questions. Instead, make your counterpart listen by describing what you want or share an anecdote about another negotiating partner who shared similar concerns and watch the response as he or she listens. The guard will lower a little and you’ll be able to see the honest reactions to what you’re saying. Make use of these reactions to plan the next phase of the conversation.
Give your counterparts alternatives to choose from. As you present a list of choices to your counterparts, their micro expressions 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 faces tell you about each option and use this information as you proceed in the conversation.
"I sincerely believe that humanity is in great need of upgrading its ability to communicate. We need to understand each other better. Our world needs more emotional intelligence." – Sara Nyström Lennqvist
How might this work in practice?
Imagine you’re a consultant who has proposed a certain fee for your services: “Based on your requirements, we can propose $100,000 as the consultancy fee for this project.” If you see your potential client show the micro expression of disgust, you can calibrate accordingly and lower your price without skipping a beat: “But because we anticipate a longer term collaboration and are excited about the direction your business is heading in, we can offer you 25% discount.”
What if you instead recognized an expression of happiness or contempt after the initial offer? Maybe your counterpart expected a higher price, or doubts that you’re offering the premium level of service. You could quickly adjust your price in the opposite direction: “That’s the basic fee which covers X and Y. For your project I also recommend our entire suite of services including A, B and C, which means the total price would be closer to $150,000.”
By reading other peoples’ body language and micro expressions we are simply able to respond to the feedback they don’t even realize they are giving. This way we stay in control of the dialogue and achieve better outcomes during our negotiations.
Sara Nyström Lennqvist is the Executive Director of the world’s leading certification training organization in Body Language for business and also runs her own business within the same field. Sara is a certified Body Language Master Trainer and Micro Expressions Trainer, Certified Impact Coach and Licensed Mental Trainer. She has an extensive experience in communication from various sectors (tourism, diplomacy, government, leadership), has an abundant international life and working experience and speaks 8 languages. She regularly conducts Body Language trainings around the world and has also given a training at the UN.