The Negotiator Magazine

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In a matter of a few weeks I received a reply from Gerard Nierenberg advising he had been approached by a firm that conducted executive seminars asking him if he was interested in doing programs based on his book. In his letter he stated he didn't know the first thing about seminars and since I had had so much experience in them, asked if I would be interested in joining him. It took a few minutes for me to answer that it would be a pleasure to join him.

I subsequently joined Jerry Nierenberg in conducting seminars for business executives in the U.S. During my presentation I spoke of how I had recorded negotiations on videotape and saw things in the "playback" session that convinced me that there were "silent messages" being communicated during negotiations. These messages reflected such things as doubt, confidence, defensiveness, or signaling when negotiators where getting ready to disclose information or make offers and compromises.

It was during the second year of working with Jerry that we decided that it might be worthwhile to co-author a book entitled How to Read a Person Like a Book which was published in 1971 and subsequently sold more than 1 million copies. It was published in 12 languages and is still in print.

One of the first nonverbal messages (body language) I noted was that when individuals become defensive or withdrawn, they often crossed their arms tightly across their chest. I soon realized there are three principal reasons why people in all walks of life cross their arms. The first is because they are cold. The second is because they are comfortable. The third is because they don't like what is being said and are reacting defensively.

The key to deciphering the meaning of crossed arms is found by observing the person's hands. When people are cold or comfortable their hands are relaxed, usually tucked under the forearms or lightly holding their biceps. However, when they are angry and very defensive, a person will grasp their biceps tightly or sometimes their hands are making fists that they try to hide under the biceps.

Another gesture we observed occurred when individuals were not sure, had doubts about what others had said or what they had personally stated. What we recorded and played back numerous times was how individuals unconsciously touched their face, especially the nose area when they were unsure or doubtful. For anyone who has ever undergone training in acting, it breaks the principal rule: ''Don't ever bring your hand to your face unless you want to communicate something."

However, even professional actors at times have difficulty abiding by this rule. For example, the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was an actor in many Hollywood movies, understood this principle very well and in the all his years as President, he seldom ever touched his face during one of his speeches, except once. This occurred during the Iran-Contra affair. When questioned by a news reporter who asked him if he was aware of the arms-exchange program, President Reagan paused a minute before he answered, then promptly touched his nose and replied, "I didn't have any knowledge of it." I was certain, as well as some others who understood nonverbal communication, that the President had lied, yet millions of citizens probably didn't even see the gesture, much less give it any significance.

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February 2005