Emotional Skills and Lie Detection for Negotiators and Lawyers

The Scared Landlord

Using Paul Ekman’s microexpression awareness means a real leg up in negotiations.  Take renting an apartment. I stopped by an open house, with no other potential tenants in sight. “Not many people here today,” I said to the apartment’s owner, not knowing whether I was late or whether there simply was not high demand. As I looked at the owner’s face, she showed a quick expression of fear, a movement of one set of muscles that draws her inner eyebrows up. Instantly I thought: maybe I can get this place for less! (I say maybe because all I knew for sure was that she had the emotion, not necessarily why, nor how long that emotion would last, nor how much she would believe whatever triggered that emotion at that time.)

The take-away: Once we know how to spot even concealed emotions, we can learn much about such things as our potential leverage and standards or threats1 that may work with a given person. Microexpressions help even when no one is lying, and there is no deception to detect.

This experience mirrors the results of simulated real estate negotiations that Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler and I developed from a research study on emotions, negotiations, and microexpressions. In each negotiation, an actor played a potential buyer of medical office space, which he hoped to purchase and lease to doctors. In several videos, some negotiators in the study “selling” showed similar fleeting facial expressions of fear on their face when the actor made certain arguments or questioned their other offers. In one video, however, the counterpart showed multiple expressions of contempt through both facial expressions and body language. Even without knowing whether the subjects were lying, the knowledge of the emotions alone may improve negotiation. When you see fear, you may not know if the person is lying, but they can make a decent hypothesis that their argument is working or that the person really is anxious to make a deal.

Also, microexpression awareness may allow you to see a lack of positive emotion or an emerging negative emotion that could benefit from attention to the core concerns. For example, with a potential landlord, I may notice that her face has not been expressing happiness; instead, has been thinning her lips, slightly drawing down her eyebrows, and widening her eyelids – in short, displaying the classic facial expression of emerging anger. Research shows even mild anger may make someone see issues more narrowly, think less creatively to find a solution, and increase his likelihood to lie and make threats. Thus, when you see these signs in the face – whether microexpressions or subtle expressions – heed this early warning signj. This could be what the Dalai Lama calls the “spark before the flame.”

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One Response to “The Scared Landlord”

  1. Anonymous Jerk says:

    The potential landlord may also have been afraid because a man she doesn’t know just commented on how there were no other people around.

    Sounds like the sort of thing said in a movie by a bad guy before he assaults a woman.

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