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Managing Negative Personal Mannerisms in Negotiation and Mediation

Negative personal mannerisms can undermine our interactions with others, even when statements made, positions taken, and offers proposed are sound and reasonable. When negotiating, have you noticed that you or your counterpart is swiveling back and forth in their chair? Leaning too far backward or forward? Fidgeting with their pen? Using their laptop or other device as a security blanket? Tapping their foot or bouncing their knee?

How observant are we as we busily engage in a point/counter-point discussion, analyze issues, formulate responses, and try to be persuasive? Are we “in our heads” as we participate in a dynamic exchange with someone? Or have we reserved some part of our awareness for the purpose of managing our own presentation and “reading” the other person to understand them better?

Skilled negotiators closely observe the personal mannerisms of their counterparts because doing so can reveal information about a person’s flexibility and settlement goals. Skilled negotiators also pay close attention to their own tendencies to engage in personal mannerisms in order to manage and control the messages that are being conveyed. Mediators, likewise, can benefit from observing the parties’ personal mannerisms, which add layers of meaning to the parties’ verbal utterances. Mediators can also model personal behavior that creates the appearance of confidence, competence, and connection with the parties.

Closely observing others and honestly assessing our own personal mannerisms make an interaction more complex and they also make negotiationas richer in terms of nuance and depth of meaning. This dual approach also can lead to a stronger connection with other people when there is an understanding of the significance and meaning of personal mannerisms. One goal of identifying and understanding personal mannerisms is to create an awareness of these mannerisms and to exercise control over them in a negotiating context.

Awareness of negative personal mannerisms can benefit beginning negotiators by bringing to their attention behaviors and speech patterns that negatively affect negotiations. Likewise, seasoned negotiators can benefit by being reminded of negative personal mannerisms and maintaining discipline and vigilance in managing them.

Personal Mannerisms Defined

Personal mannerisms are are small, at times barely detectable, physical movements or actions made by negotiators. They are often repetitive and unconscious. Occasionally, they may include short words, phrases, and utterances that are habitual, automatic, and unthinking. Generally, personal mannerisms fit into the larger category of nonverbal behavior, although they may include particular ways of speaking. Personal mannerisms may be defined as concrete, bite-sized, discrete examples of non-verbal behavior or utterances. While some negotiators labor under the misconception that personal mannerisms are unnoticed and irrelevant, in reality, our negotiation counterperts recognize negative personal mannerisms consciously and unconsciously. They draw inferences about motivation and intent from these mannerisms and they may form negative impressions of others based upon the personal mannerisms.

Negative personal mannerisms, the focus of this article, are behaviors that interfere with or distract from an interaction. They can be viewed as affected, annoying and irritating. They do not strategically advance a negotiation. Rather, they become a hindrance that leads a negotiation away from its strategic goals.

Managing Personal Mannerisms

The strategic goal of managing personal mannerisms is to generate an interaction in which the parties enter a frame of mind that is conducive to constructive conversations and negotiations. The goal is not to eliminate all personal mannerisms and characteristics that make each one of us unique. The goal is not to produce an automaton that is rigid, inflexible, and uncomfortable to be around. Rather, the primary goal is to identify and make conscious decisions concerning the use of our own personal mannerisms that may be viewed as negative in order to make negotiations more constructive and productive.

In addition to being a source of irritation and distraction, negative personal mannerisms may also inadvertently convey a lack of confidence or reveal information that a negotiator is not ready to reveal. Negative personal mannerisms may be viewed as the behavioral equivalent of “verbal leaks,” in which negotiators inadvertently reveal information about their evaluation, position, or goals through the careless choice of words.

What Makes a Personal Mannerism Negative?

A personal mannerism may be characterized as negative if it is viewed by your negotiating counterpart as negative. To some degree, perception of personal mannerisms may reflect cultural norms. It may also reflect personal preferences and individual variations.

Negative personal mannerisms have the additional characteristic that they are generally not susceptible of being viewed positively. Unlike some personal mannerisms, negative personal mannerisms generally are not ambiguous, capable of differing interpretations, or dependent upon specific circumstances to have a negative impact on negotiation.

Importantly, the intention of a person engaging in a negative personal mannerism, while perhaps pertinent, is not the key point. What makes a personal mannerism negative is the way it is perceived by another person. Some negotiators will report that negative personal mannerisms are simply an outlet for excess energy and that they are neutral in their impact and they carry no particular message. Because the perception of a personal mannerism is the source of its negative nature, it is irrelevant to profess good intentions, or, at the very least, the absence of bad intentions, when defending the use of negative personal mannerisms. The impact of a negative personal mannerism on the other person is the primary concern.

The negative personal mannerisms identified below do not constitute an exhaustive list of such behaviors; however, they are behaviors that are so frequently used–mostly unconsciously– that they deserve special attention and handling.

Negative Personal Mannerisms

In negotiation, parties and their advocates may engage in one or more readily identifiable negative personal mannerisms. The following personal mannerisms are seen as reflecting impatience, boredom, indifference, nervousness, and annoyance.

  • Pens (holding onto them even when not writing, clicking the pen, manipulating the pen, fidgeting, tapping pen on table)
  • Seating position (leaning too far back/too far forward, turning away from the other person, slouching, overly rigid)
  • Twisting or turning in chair
  • Laptops and other devices (placing them between people, holding onto them, carrying them with you even though you are not using them, putting them on the floor next to you, checking them periodically for messages, incoming information, pop-ups)
  • Tapping your heel on the floor
  • Tapping your toes on the floor
  • Bouncing your knee or foot when your legs are crossed
  • Touching or tugging at your clothing
  • Drumming fingers on the table
  • Fiddling with eyeglasses or wristwatch
  • Biting or chewing lips
  • Clearing throat
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Jingling coins or other objects in pockets
  • Picking at the fluff on clothes
  • Rotating ring on finger
  • Saying “um” or “so” or other words at beginning of sentence
  • Scratching some part of the body
  • Tugging at ears
  • Straightening paper clips, papers, or other objects
  • Touching or twirling your hair
  • Brushing against your nose
  • Covering your mouth when speaking
  • Using words/phrases on auto-pilot without regard for their impact
  • As a mediator, sitting in a manner that is oriented toward one party
  • As a mediator, giving equal eye contact to parties/advocates when they have varying needs for eye contact
  • Verbal leaks

Managing Negative Personal Mannerisms

Pens and Other Writing Devices When you are not writing with your pen–put it down. Try not to yield to the temptation to hold onto your pen as a prop that will somehow enhance your presentation or protect your position. Your pen–no matter how sharp or fancy it may be–will not protect you from the barbs, challenges, tests, and forceful advocacy of the other person. Hanging onto a pen can be seen as a weak way to present yourself as an advocate.

Seating and Posture A skilled negotiator generates the appearance of confidence and competence by generally sitting in a vertical position, plus or minus a few degrees. Leaning back too far may be seen as too casual or, in the alternative, too aggressive. Sitting on the edge of your chair or learning too far forward may be viewed as over-eager, desperate, aggressive, or dominating. Of course, a seating position is dynamic and should not be rigid or over-controlled.

The Secret of Handling Loose-Backed Chairs

Everyone has been in the position of negotiating in a chair that does not support them. The chair could be old, adjusted poorly, or badly designed. It could, perish the thought, be intentionally loosened to throw you off your game. One of the secrets to handling a loose-backed chair is to arrive early and, where appropriate, adjust the tension in the chair yourself or to choose a tighter chair.

Another secret to maintaining an upright body position–even with loose chairs–is to position yourself right up against the back of the chair. Do not allow any daylight between yourself and the back of the chair because it will cause you to lean back simply to make contact with the chair. If the chair is loose, you will find yourself leaning back doubly far, which does not come across as confident and competent. Instead, if you push yourself up against the back of the chair as you sit down, you will feel some degree of support and you will not have to constantly re-adjust your position as you find yourself leaning farther and farther back in your loose-backed chair.

Laptops, Telephones, and Electronic Devices Unless they are needed for data presentations, graphics, or other technical purposes, laptops, telephones, and other electronic devices create distractions and barriers to communication. When they are not directly in use, close them or put them away. In face-to-face negotiations, turn off the cell phone, unless a critical telephone call that is related to the negotiation is expected. Close the laptop. Turn over tablets in order to prevent pop-up messages from causing distractions. One of your primary goals as a negotiator is to establish a personal connection with the other person; a computer screen or other device interferes with that priority.

The personal connection between people can be seriously impaired when electronic devices are scattered across a conference table. The focus becomes misplaced upon the device instead of the other person.

Tapping Your Feet or Leg, Touching Your Clothing or Hair, Brushing Your Hand Against Your Nose These actions do not present a positive, assertive, engaged, confident image. Almost everyone has developed one or more of these negative personal mannerisms, so, first, an honest self-assessment must be done. Next, each person has to pay particular attention to these specific behaviors when they negotiate. These behaviors are so deeply embedded in the sub-conscious that, even after being told they are bouncing their feet, most people go right back to the same habit. Practice and continual feedback from friendly sources are required to break these types of habits.

Covering Your Mouth When Speaking This may be viewed as shady and slippery, independent of the actual motivations for engaging in this behavior. It may be viewed as a blocking technique where you are attempting to hide your true intentions. At best, it does not create confidence in you as a negotiator. Making a connection with another person during negotiation necessarily involves opening yourself up and becoming vulnerable to a degree. In adversarial negotiations, this may seem counter-intuitive. The reality is that blocking behaviors, e.g., crossing arms and legs, turning away from others, and covering your mouth, may actually create barriers to constructive communication and negotiation. Most negotiations are a give and take process. To reach another negotiator, it is often necessary to give up some of the natural desire to protect oneself with blocking behaviors and, instead, to facilitate a constructive conversation by opening up oneself. This means that, any gesture that crosses your body presents a risk of blocking the opportunity to make a connection with the other person. Conversely, open hands, relaxed legs with the feet on the floor, and open arms, all contribute to a positive interaction that promotes a connection between people.

Using Automatic Words and Phrases Some common words and phrases can create misunderstandings. These words and phrases are so short and so automatic that they fall somewhere between verbal communications and body language. Certain words and phrases present a risk that the other person may interpret them to mean that you agree with them, especially if they are used repeatedly:

  • Okay
  • Yes
  • Right
  • Uh-huh
  • Overuse of head nodding

To keep a conversation open, a negotiator has several options. One is to mix up the use of the words and phrases listed above. Another option is to use “acknowledgment,” which is to use words that express the fact that you understand the other person’s position or perspective without agreeing or disagreeing with it (e.g., I see what you’re saying, I understand your point, I’m sorry you had to go through that). It is challenging to move from auto-pilot with respect to our style of listening and the words we use as part of a feedback loop. We have probably been using these words and phrases most of our lives. With awareness and practice, however, it is possible to modify your listening style and to avoid the risks of automatic words and phrases.

Verbal Leaks Verbal leaks are inadvertent words, phrases, sounds, hesitations, and utterances that give away more information than intended. For example, a negotiator may ask, “Is that your best offer?” You may not want to spend more, but you have more money and you “leak” that unintentionally, “(First you hesitate) Well…yes.” Instead, you could honestly say that you don’t want to spend more and you want the other person to make a decision based upon the pending offer. Alternatively, you could say, “”The offer is fair and it meets everyone’s interests. Do you want to accept it?”

In another common situation, a party will ask a mediator, “Does the other party have more money?” The mediator has been told, confidentially, that the other party does have more money; however, the mediator has been expressly not authorized to disclose it. A verbal leak might sound like, “I’m not sure, really.” Instead, a mediator might say, “One way to find out if the other party has more money is to make a counter-offer.”

A Mediator’s Special Challenges As individuals, mediators may prefer to set facing toward the left or right. It could be a personal mannerism. It could be the result of an old sports injury. Or it could be the result of an on-going lower back problem or some other condition. When conferring with all parties and advocates, a mediator cannot afford to allow their personal preferences affect the way they conduct themselves. The risk is that the parties and advocates on one side of the table may intuitively feel the mediator is more favorably disposed toward them due to the way the mediator is sitting. For this reason, a mediator has to take special care to ensure that they are orienting their body, generally, in the middle of the parties. Naturally, head movement and temporary body movements can be made toward one person or another, so long as the mediator takes special care to ensure that their movements are not being interpreted as showing favoritism.

Equal eye contact is frequently cited as the preferable way for a mediator to address a group.

The reality is, however, that different people within a group generally have differing needs for attention and eye contact. Attorneys, insurance professionals, and other regular mediation users generally do not need the same amount of eye contact as a one-time party, perhaps the plaintiff. Accordingly, it is preferable for a mediator to use “appropriate eye contact” with the participants, making constant and on-going decisions about which participants are in the greatest need of direct attention.


Certain behaviors are universally regarded as negative personal mannerisms in negotiation and mediation. Unless checked, most people engage in one or more of these behaviors. In becoming a skilled negotiator, it is critical to be aware of these behaviors in ourselves in order to come across as confident and competent. It is equally critical to be aware of these behaviors in others because it may be helpful in evaluating their negotiation skills, it may reveal information about their true aspirations and goals, and it may contribute to understanding the other person better.

Each one of the negative personal mannerisms can be managed, though not eliminated entirely, through the use of specific techniques outlined above. With mindfulness and practice, it is possible for negotiators to improve their ability to manage their negative personal mannerisms in a way that optimizes the chances for productive negotiation.


Gregg Relyea

Gregg Relyea, Esq. is a full-time private mediator in San Diego, California.  In addition to teaching mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Mr. Relyea has written a comprehensive negotiation and mediation practice guide, Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills… MORE >

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