A Body Talks

The power of communication.

In the world of negotiation — whether in the household, the workplace or the global marketplace — a skilled communicator always has the advantage.

Successful negotiators know how to get what they want without giving too much away. They also understand that, in the language of negotiation, what you say may not be as important as the way you say it.

“Nonverbal communication is the driver of relationships,” says School of Business Professor Zhaleh Semnani-Azad. “People pick up subtle cues from tone of voice, facial expression and posture, and that significantly influences how they interpret and respond to what someone is saying.”

If there is an inconsistency between what people say (words) and how they say it (tone), Semnani-Azad says, listeners will respond to the tone. “Saying ‘I’m fine’ in a tone that betrays otherwise, clearly means you are not fine.”

But reading nonverbal cues correctly across cultures can be tricky. And in the world of international business negotiations, the fallout from misunderstandings can be significant.

Zhaleh Semnani-Azad and a group of individuals meeting
Professor Zhaleh Semnani-Azad

Semnani-Azad looks at the role of nonverbal communication in cross-cultural interactions and negotiations through the lens of cultural theory. Her interests lie at the intersection of organizational behavior and psychology.

Some nonverbal communication is universal: A smile is a smile is a smile. But conflicts can and often do arise because negotiation styles differ and because body signals often mean different things in different cultures and so are easily misinterpreted.

“Negotiation is a competitive situation,” she says. “Executives, who can learn how to read what the other side is really saying with body signals and who are sensitive to how their own signals, might be perceived to have a definite advantage.”

Negotiation is a competitive situation. Executives, who can learn how to read what the other side is really saying with body signals and who are sensitive to how their own signals might be perceived, have a definite advantage.

That’s where her research comes in.

In one study looking at East-West differences, Semnani-Azad and her colleagues videotaped a role-playing negotiation involving Chinese and Canadian students. The researchers analyzed six categories of behavior: posture, head movement, hand movement, eye gaze, facial expression and the rate at which participants fell silent or kept talking.

While many of the nonverbal cues were used by both groups to convey the same meanings, there were some significant differences. For example, when projecting dissatisfaction, Chinese participants often leaned back and made eye contact frequently. These are body signals that can easily be misinterpreted as positive and laid-back by Westerners. The Canadian participants, on the other hand, averted their eyes to express negativity and were likely to sit up straight to assert dominance, while the Chinese students used that same posture to display acquiescence.

Encoded within these divides are important cultural and social differences among populations that also affect negotiating styles.

While Semnani-Azad looks at prototypical behavior, she is quick to point out that there are always differences within cultural groups. “That’s why stereotyping can also lead to conflicts and miscommunication.”

For companies today, training employees to raise emotional and cultural intelligence is a smart move. “It’s really crucial for our global working world,” says Semnani-Azad. “When someone starts dealing with people from other cultures, it immediately raises anxiety. But, as understanding grows and interactions become more frequent, anxiety diminishes and confidence develops.”

Men and women with various facial expressions
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