How the Physical Environment Affects Negotiations

The physical environment transmits nonverbal messages that can be extremely important to negotiators. Key elements of the environment include:

  • The negotiation conference facility;
  • Conference table configuration, size, and seating arrangements;
  • Physical distance between negotiators;
  • Relative elevation of the negotiators; and
  • Visual aids.

Negotiation Conference Facility

Your negotiation conference facility says volumes about you, your organization, and the importance of the negotiation.

  • Messages are sent by the entire facility not just the conference room. A dirty or substandard restroom might actually send a stronger message about your organization than a substandard conference room.
  • Negotiators will react to subliminal messages related to the negotiation facility even though they may not realize that the messages exist.
    • Superior negotiation facilities convey positive messages about the host and the importance of the negotiation. These messages may increase the self-assurance of the host and lower the confidence of the guest negotiators.
    • Substandard negotiation facilities convey unflattering nonverbal messages. These unflattering messages may lower the confidence of the host team while increasing the self-assurance of the guest negotiators.
  • Negotiators’ reactions may be affected by plush carpet or expensive furniture but they are affected more by physical comfort.
    • An older or less attractive facility may provide positive results as long as it offers sufficient comfort for everyone involved. That includes:
      • Adequate furnishings, lighting, and space for everyone involved; and
      • A comfortable room temperature.

Physical discomfort will likely negatively affect the attitudes of people already under pressure. It may particularly affect the attitude of the guest team, if they perceive the discomfort as a win/lose tactic by the host.

Negotiation Table Configuration

Although there is no standard table configuration for every negotiation conference, the table arrangement transmits important conscious and subliminal messages. Keep in mind that such messages are so important that the negotiations to end the Vietnam War were delayed for almost a year while the parties involved negotiated the shape of the negotiation table.

The best table arrangement for any negotiation depends on the situation. However, win/win negotiation attitudes can be promoted with table configurations that convey trust. In contrast, win/lose attitudes are created by table settings that communicate disparity or mistrust between the two parties.

Each negotiation table configuration below conveys a different message.

  • An long rectangle table with parties seated directly across from each other is a typical configuration for contract negotiations. The two parties sit together to indicate and foster unity. Each team is on a different side of the table and the teams are facing each other so each team member can clearly hear what anyone on the other team has to say.
  • An inverted “T” shaped table may tend to give one party an advantage over the other because the arrangement suggests only one important person (at the top of the “T”), the person at the end of the vertical extension.
  • Two long rectangle tables, placed together horizontally with each team sitting across from each other provides a need for space between the two parties. That space could mean more formality or less trust.
  • A large round table may be the most conducive to win/win negotiations because the round shape is usually associated with equality.

Negotiation Table Size

The conference table(s) should be large enough to comfortably seat participants from both teams with adequate space for their work papers, reference material, and briefcases. Depending upon the complexity of and probable length of the negotiation, more chairs may be needed if specialists or observers are added to the group. However, any additional furniture should be positioned so as not to interfere with the action at the negotiation table.

Principal Negotiator’s Position at the Negotiation Table

The physical position of the principal negotiator is generally at the center of the negotiation team. The ideal place for the principal negotiator in each arrangement above is the middle seat flanked by team members.

The central position conveys a message of authority and sends an image of a unified negotiation team. For example, the President of the United States always sits at the center of the conference table during Cabinet meetings.

In addition to sending a negative nonverbal message, positioning the principal negotiator somewhere other than at the center of the team also has other consequences. In particular, an end position will likely make it more difficult for some team members to whisper advice, give cues, or pass notes to the principal negotiator.

Physical Distance Between Negotiators

People in different cultures require different amounts of physical distance for communication. Too little or too much space between people can have a negative effect. In the United States, most people:

  • Reserve the space closer than 1.5 feet for intimate communication. A negotiator may be annoyed and nervous if you attempt to conduct any significant communication from any distance closer than 1.5 feet.
  • Allow a distance of 1.5 to 4 feet for close interpersonal contact. A negotiator will likely become increasingly annoyed and nervous as you move closer.
  • Allow a distance of 4 to 12 feet for most business transactions or consultations. Note that four feet is about the distance across the typical conference table.
  • Communicate only briefly or formally at a distance beyond 12 feet.

Relative Elevation of the Negotiators

The phrase “I look up to …” indicates respect. You need to be aware that this phrase is more than just a cliché. In fact, most people in the United States are conditioned early in life to defer to people on a higher physical level and that training continues throughout their lives.

  • Teachers stand while students sit.
  • Judges preside from raised platforms.
  • Political leaders address supporters from raised stages.

Some negotiators attempt to take advantage of this conditioning by raising themselves above the other negotiator. Some make key points while standing or walking around as the other negotiator sits. Others have gone so far as to raise the chairs for their team to a level higher than those for the other team.

Do not allow another negotiator to intimidate you by physically talking down to you. If necessary, stand yourself or ask the other negotiator to sit down.

Visual Aids

Assure that adequate visual aids are available to support both negotiating teams. Marker boards and chalkboards are practically a standard requirement. Visual aids may also include overhead projectors or videocassette recorders with televisions.

Marker boards and chalkboards are excellent for summarizing the negotiation agenda, issues, and agreements. However, you need to remember that the person who is writing on the board has the power of the marker. By controlling what is written, that person can modify the agenda, define key issues, or draft agreements. That power can substantially affect negotiation progress and results.

Source: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment:

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