The conversation dynamics that can make or break a deal

Do you want to walk away from the negotiating table with the best deal? According to new research, success isn’t just about what you say — but also how you say.

Matteo Di Stasi
Jordi Quoidbach

Research by Esade’s Matteo Di Stasi and Jordi Quoidbach, together with Emma Templeton (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College), published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reveals that how quickly and often you speak, waiting your turn and interrupt can all have a big impact on negotiation outcomes. 

Go with the flow

Verbal communication, body language and facial expression have all been shown to impact conversation impressions. Smiling, using warm and polite tones are likely to leave a good impression, as is appearing attentive and interested by responding quickly. 

At the negotiating table, however, these tactics may hurt your success. Research shows that in a negotiation setting, people who smile more get worse deals, polite speech results in less favorable pricing, and answering too quickly doesn’t leave time for exploring mutually beneficial agreements.  

People who speak more, faster and pause less obtain higher gains

Beyond these tactics, the study by Di Stasi, Templeton and Quoidbach reveals that people who speak more, faster and pause less obtain higher gains. While those that are less consistent and interrupt more, are liked less. In sum, the conversation flows, they say, can make or break a deal. 

Seven dynamics of successful conversations

Speaking time, turn length, response time and backchannels (short words or sounds such as ‘mmhmm’, ‘I see’ and ‘OK’ used to signal attention) have all been studied in the context of negotiation. This new research adds three extra dimensions to conversation dynamics: pauses, speech rate and interruptions

Normally, negotiators aim for two successful outcomes: objective (such as money or terms) and relational (building trust or a positive reputation). To be successful in both areas requires different tactics. Objective success hinges on adeptly navigating offers and counteroffers, or employing innovative problem-solving techniques. On the other hand, relational success necessitates fostering a solid rapport. 

To explore how all seven conversation dynamics impact both objective and relational outcomes, the researchers studied 239 online negotiation recordings from 380 MBAs students. They examined how the dimensions relate to each other, and they investigated which dimensions predicted negotiation outcomes. 

Negotiation dynamics
Conversation dynamics during a negotiation. Source: Zooming out on bargaining tables: Exploring which conversation dynamics predict negotiation outcomes

Online impact

Virtual calls are re-shaping the nuances of negotiation: body language plays a very limited role, facial expressions are magnified and tech-based glitches interrupt natural timing. Gaining insight into the impact of online negotiations is essential to inform effective practice.  

To tackle this issue, two simulated online negotiation sessions were conducted among participants using the Zoom online conferencing platform. The first was a negotiation between the executive editor and an advertising manager of a newspaper to decide the best way to spend a one-million-dollar investment. The second was a recruitment setting between a high-level recruiter and a successful job candidate to decide terms. 

Virtual calls are re-shaping the nuances of negotiation

Following each discussion, participants jointly completed an online contract with the agreed terms of their deal, then privately recorded their feelings about the process and their counterpart. 

Fast talker

The seven conversation dynamics (speaking time, turn length, pauses, speech rate, interruptions, backchannels and response time) were measured and recorded by median, variability, autocorrelation and cross-speaker correlation.  

The comprehensive investigation resulted in 38,564 conversation turns, which highlights the high level of dependency between conversation measures. Some results were expected — such as a strong relationship between turn length and speaking time — but others were surprising. 

The researchers found that faster talkers took more pauses, but those who spoke fast and paused less got better objective outcomes — being more talkative may enable the negotiator to gain more value without compromising the relationship. 

Speaking time was the strongest predictor of objective outcomes, suggesting that assertive behavior is beneficial in negotiations. However, the benefits of being assertive don't apply to those who interrupt more often. On the contrary, interruptions were shown to be the most harmful element in relationship outcomes and provided no objective benefits. 

Wait your turn

Turn-taking was shown to be relevant in the negotiation. The length of turns was also significant — those who adapted to the style of their counterpart and varied their speaking times throughout negotiations built a stronger relationship. 

The benefits of being assertive doesn’t stretch to interrupting more often

The researchers point out that there may be some mitigating factors; for example, negotiators who talk more may simply be better prepared. However, the results clearly illustrate that effective communication goes beyond verbal cues.  

And, say the researchers, as some of the behaviors they observed reliably predicted outcomes, it’s feasible that negotiators’ behavior could be strategically modified to get better deals. Live feedback using conversational analytics could allow negotiators to adjust the style of their delivery in real-time to influence more productive conversations. 

The researchers acknowledge that the results may be specific to the online context, given the nature of the study and its limitations. However, the results do suggest that the coordination of a conversation is important — and could even be a dealbreaker. 

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