The right strategy and preparation are important elements in successful negotiation, but unless we use the right verbal and non-verbal communication we may never get what we want. Knowing the rules that that can set the tone or “code” of a negotiation, and how we can successfully switch that code, is vitally important. Without that knowledge, this author points out, we may never get what we want.

Once, I was invited to participate in a hostage training exercise. The scene commander gave me a guided tour of the mobile command truck that usually doubles as the negotiation center for an incident.  He began by opening the cabinets and exposing his arsenal of weapons that included rifles, grenade launchers, stun guns and the like.  Then he said, “Do you want to see my most powerful weapon?” Anticipating some kind of Star Wars missile launching system, I eagerly said, “Sure.”   He then walked slowly, almost reverently, to a small cabinet in the back of the van, opened it, and said, “There it is.”  I walked back, looked in the cabinet and said, “A slingshot?”  He said, “That’s right, a slingshot. That is my most powerful weapon. Sometimes when negotiations get stale, I load the slingshot with bee bees and shoot them up on the roof, or at the windows.  The hostage taker gets scared hearing strange noises, making him a little more motivated to negotiate.”

The point of this story for business negotiators is that it helps to maintain at least one and perhaps a whole cabinet full of slingshots capable of moving talks in a positive direction.  One such special tool, and one that negotiators use often, is called “communication code switching.”  Like a slingshot that can dramatically shift the course of a negotiation, effective negotiators know how to switch codes to alter the course of a negotiation to achieve big gains.  This article will describe code switching and how business negotiators can use it effectively.

Communication codes

A communication code is a set of rules that shape our verbal and nonverbal language.  Some people think of code as the “tone” of a communication.  In essence, people put together a package of words, sounds, volumes, and physical expressions that displays (or tries to hide) their intentions.  This package is the “tone,” or “code” that people use to communicate.  We develop codes for telling jokes, arguing with friends, conducting meetings, engaging in negotiations and for every other type of verbal communication.

The key point about codes is that they gain momentum.  When a code is used consistently in a conversation, these combinations of choices constitute rules that regulate what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate in the interaction.  When one code is in force for a long time, it becomes difficult to shift it.  So, code shifting must be set up by introducing codes that may be needed later in the negotiations, and by insuring that bargainers don’t get stuck in codes that stifle opportunities to make great deals.

A simple example of code switching happens in homes with lots of kids.  Parents have many codes for their kids, depending on their goals.  A parent will adopt one code to coax their kids to eat more spinach, another to keep them from running in the street, another for reading stories before bedtime, and another to scold them for inappropriate behavior. Parents know how to switch very quickly from scolding a child, to asking a spouse for a favor, to inquiring about homework.  Code switching is a very common skill that many of us learn at home; harnessed properly, it is very useful at the negotiation table.

Two issues are relevant at this point.  First, what are the key features of a communication code? Second, what are some effective code-switching strategies for negotiation purposes?  To help grow your skills in understanding and ultimately managing your code, consider this list of code features that are part of every conversation.  Negotiators must be able to recognize the code that is in force in every conversation and learn to adjust it to enhance their objectives.

A. Linguistic form

  • Question: Interrogation
  • Declarative statement: Stating a factor opinion
  • Topic change: A shift from the immediate topic that is in force
  • Interruption: Talking over the prior utterance

B. Utterance form

  • Utterance length: Number of independent clauses in the talking turn
  • Volume and Pitch: Decibel level and octave level of the utterance
  • Pace or speed of speech: Number of words per minute
  • Sentence complexity: Number of dependent clauses in the sentence

C. Physical display

  • Face display: Amount of eye contact, smile, expressiveness in facial features
  • Body display: Body posture, position/proximity, distance, movement, gestures
  • Physical appearance: Formal or informal dress, amount of makeup, etc.
  • Physical contact: Amount of touching
  • Smell/odor: Intensity of cologne
  • Location: Physical context for communicating such as an office around a table, standing up, etc.

D. Word Choice

  • Topical form: Work, personal,
  • Topical goal: Agree/disagree, tell a joke, make an offer, state a fact
  • Language intensity: Using big words, profanity, obscure references,
  • Direct reference: Being very direct or indirect in achieving a topical goal
  • Verb tense: Speaking more in the past, present, or future
  • Forms of address: Using very formal/informal titles in introductions or greetings
  • Grammatical choice: Using proper or colloquial grammar
  • Accent/dialect: Using an accent for word choice

Code switching strategies for negotiators

These linguistic elements combine to form the code for every conversation.  For example, what does a serious business communication code look like? Let’s consider some commonly-used features: Linguistic form: Negotiators exchange facts and opinions, and ask many questions, give few topic shifts, and make few interruptions.

Utterance form: The business code is dominated by long sentences, at a moderate volume with a low, serious pitch, a relatively slow pace, and more complex sentences that are common in writing.

Physical Display: Negotiators have eye contact with little smiling, minimal facial expressiveness, a stoic body posture in a seated position forward in the chair, 5-7 feet of physical distance across a table, few large gestures, formal dress, little touching, and minimal smell, with talks located in a formal conference room.

Word choice: Business topics are focused on the task, with parties using fairly big words, little if any profanity and obscure references are often used. Language is often qualified, parties speak more in the present and future than in the past; formal terms of address, proper grammar, and restrained dialect is also common.

Should negotiators maintain this kind of conversational code or switch it, and if they decide that a shift is needed, how should they shift it?  And, how can code switching handle some of the key challenges in negotiation?  Here are some answers to these questions based on many studies that have examined code switching in communication.

Should negotiators switch codes?

The simple answer is, “Yes,” negotiators should work to shift codes fairly regularly and establish codes that suit their needs.  For example, research clearly indicates that engaging in some form of pleasant, friendly banter at the beginning of a negotiation is very important.  In fact, in a study I recently completed, and in which nurses examined the communication skills of the physicians they worked with, the physician’s friendliness and openness to feedback were key in the nurses’ evaluations of the physicians’ medical skills.  This finding has been replicated in a number of different contexts.  Friendliness and attentiveness are central in how communicators are perceived.  Since all negotiations are built on some level of trust, and trust grows from interpersonal relationships, it is important to signal your willingness to establish a positive relationship.  You signal your desire to develop a relationship by shifting your code, when appropriate, to a friendly, non-business like form.

What does this casual conversation or an interpersonal code look like?  Here are some features:

Linguistic form: Interpersonal talk typically focuses on personal topics with lots of opinions, a few questions, possibly some topic shifts focusing on personal, pleasant topics that open people up, and few interruptions. The key in effective conversation is to follow up on the other person’s topics to show that you are listening and value that person’s contributions.  Pick up on the topic with a funny or unusual story about the topic.  Listening is perceived as the number one indicator of friendliness.  Do not interrupt, follow the topic, and be engaging.

Utterance form: Short sentences characterize casual conversation.  When people are having fun with talk, they don’t like to listen to long lectures or stories.  Keep sentences short and to the point. Sometimes the volume can get loud as people laugh together and exchange fun stories which add to the friendliness.  And, in contrast to business speak, the pitch in friendly talk is a bit higher, quicker pace, and the sentences are typically simple and easy to understand.

Physical display: Casual conversation also involves extensive, if casual, eye contact with lots of smiling and very animated facial expressiveness. Body posture involves more movement and physical distance can be minimized, particularly if people are standing. There may be large gestures to illustrate a fun point, and more touching by shaking hands or pats on the arm (for men) or hugs (for the women).

Word choice: Topics in casual conversation are typically focused on easy, fun activities or events. Stories are often valued.  Small, simple words are preferred and some mild profanity may be appropriate (if people really know one another well).  The language is more direct and unqualified, forms of address are usually very informal, and there’s more flexibility on grammar and dialect.

If you use this code at the beginning of a negotiation you stand a much better chance of building trust and letting people “be themselves.” Many negotiators across the globe insist on spending hours or even days building interpersonal relations before conducting business.  But, more importantly, by using this code at the beginning of a negotiation, you establish its legitimacy which allows you to come back to it if needed during the bargaining process. This switch can be very useful if the negotiations become tense, people need to refocus, or the interpersonal relationship needs to be re-established. But the key point is this:  not establishing the code at the beginning makes it much more difficult to initiate it when other codes are well established. Recall that codes develop a momentum.  Switching into a new code from a well established one can be difficult.  Reintroducing one is usually much easier.

A negotiator should have a number of codes available to switch topics or issues, re-establish the relationship, increase the intensity associated with a key point, or show support or empathy, etc.  Each one of these communication changes requires its own separate code.  We do this very easily when communicating with our family.  In this context, we typically switch easily between many different codes in the span of only a few moments.  But, we should also learn to do this at the bargaining table, that is to improve our flexibility in establishing our interests, exploring issues, and developing proposals.

How negotiators can switch codes effectively

Negotiators must know how to subtly adjust or expand their codes to pursue their various goals.  For example, asking opponents how they are going to “sell” their proposals to their constituents might require a more empathic, conversational code to communicate a willingness to help with this task. Trying to communicate more determination surrounding a particular issue might require a different code.

However, be aware that a radical switch in code can compromise the negotiator’s credibility.  Going from a very serious to a very conversational code at the wrong time might be viewed as very weird and disingenuous.  I recall a particularly interesting code switch that a husband used in a divorce mediation. He started the mediation by raving about the ex-wife’s boyfriend using loud utterances, profanity and large gestures.  He then did a complete turnaround in one utterance and tried to display a very friendly, interpersonal tone.  It flopped, and the wife and mediator interpreted it as an attempt to manipulate the process.  The general rule is that a subtle and gradual switch can enhance credibility and be much more effective at supporting specific topics and ideas.

I have seen many instances in which negotiators are trudging through an important deal using a very formal set of communication codes. Effective negotiators spot the need for a break and perform a slight shift in code to a more conversational form. This switch might be accomplished by making a brief comment on an issue that references a spouse, or a son or daughter, or some personal story that is slightly off-topic and casual, but still relevant.  This subtle switch to a more personal topic may gain some momentum if others adopt it.  If the new code is sustained for a few utterances, the group essentially gives its permission to expand the code options that are available to use.  Remember, these codes are negotiable, and each switch is really a proposal to move in a slightly different direction.  If others use it as well, the proposal is accepted and a tacit communication code agreement has been reached.

This is a key point.  If others pick up on the switch by changing to your code, then that is a good indication that they are ready to follow your lead and move the communication in a new direction. This witch can be very powerful because it tacitly establishes your leadership in the negotiation.  If others follow your lead you can then set the tone and code for the substantive part of the negotiations. However, if they do not pick up on your switch, you may want to return to the previous code and wait for a more opportune moment.  Remember, it is easier to switch to a code that people have already used, and it is harder to switch if you allow one code to become established for a long period of time. Flexibility is essential in communication.

Using code switching to solve key problems

Negotiators face many significant challenges when trying to shape the negotiations.  These challenges are well documented in many publications on negotiation.  The key question is how code switching facilitates some of these key challenges.

Challenge 1: Dealing with problem negotiators. In a recent negotiation training session, a group of beverage salespeople indicated that their customers often use the old “hammer” strategy.  They get right in the face of the salespeople and try to dictate deals, often using a very aggressive, hostile tone.  This situation is very similar to the initial stages of a hostage negotiation, in which the hostage taker uses very aggressive strategies in an attempt to bully the police negotiator into compliance with outrageous demands.  Many negotiators face these kinds of tactics.  The question is, “How can you manage this problem negotiation through code switching?”

The general rule about matching or shifting is to first determine whether the code that the other party is using is right for you or not.  If it is, you can match it and carry on with your negotiation.  If the code is not likely to move the negotiation along positively, work to change it.  The advice I gave the salesperson is to reply in a friendly code with a simple question: Why do you want that?  Or, you can shift the topic (and thus the code as well) away from positions and try to back up and gather background information about the situation.  Whatever strategy is used, the key is changing the code and not “getting stupid,” or matching a hostile code with a hostile code and escalating the conflict out of control.

I met one of the salespersons a few months later and she remarked that she encountered several of these incidents since the seminar.  When she asked the “why” question, the other party backed off immediately and become more reasonable by explaining his demands.  As soon as it is was clear that she could not be bullied, the negotiations became more professional.  One of the first rules of hostage negotiation is to not respond to threats or ultimatums.  Change the code and move in a different direction.

Challenge 2: Identifying the other party’s key problem.  The prevailing wisdom in building an agreement holds that parties must understand each other’s problem, the one that the negotiation is meant to solve.  The problem may be out on the table, but often it is hidden in a stream of emotions or ambiguities.  I once bought a cottage from an elderly lady who was asking several thousand dollars too much for the property.  Rather than stay on the price issue, I talked more generally about the cottage and the village surrounding it, but not the price. Eventually, she began to open up and revealed that the real reason she was asking such a high price was that she told her brother, who owned the cottage next door, that she was a tough negotiator and could get that high price for the cottage.  Realizing that her main problem with the sale of the property revolved around her personal identity, I offered to give her full price in return for very favorable land-grant interest arrangements that more than made up for the high price.  The deal solved her main problem, and mine, as well.

What role did communication code play in crafting the deal?  Follow the sequence carefully.  She began with a rather stern, business code surrounding the issue of price.  Rather than match her code, I decided to shift to a more personal code by complementing her on the cottage, and asking her to share stories about growing up there.  She then matched my personal code for several exchanges leading to her disclosing the identity issue with her brother.  I made a strategic code switch, and then sustained that interpersonal code until the key negotiation problem was revealed.  If I had matched her business-like code and tried to make all kinds of rational arguments about why the cottage was not worth the sale price, I would have made little progress.  I am convinced that switching codes was a key element in revealing the main problem that the negotiation needed to solve for her.

Challenge 3: Developing the Issues.  Another important challenge in any negotiation is to insure that all the key issues shaping the negotiation are carefully revealed and explored appropriately.  Each side must understand the high-, medium-, and low-priority issues and, perhaps most importantly, how they all fit together and impact one another.  Several factors often stand in the way of this development. For example, negotiators might become anxious about progress and try to push too quickly for an agreement by focusing only on a single issue and ignoring attempts to understand the others.  There are always many issues that impact settlements, and negotiators who do not take the time to explore these issues fully often force outcomes that will ultimately fail.

One of the best examples of this kind of rush job was the Daimler-Chrysler merger that was forged nearly a decade ago.  Recall that Daimler-Benz and Chrysler rushed into a deal that was initially conceptualized as a “merger of equals.”  However, a variety of corporate culture and management issues were not carefully explored, paving the way for Daimler-Benz to quickly impose itself on the Chrysler culture and ultimately consume it.  Chrysler was probably eager to craft a deal since it was being crushed by debt and the need to develop a more competitive product line.

Again, how does communication code choice impact these kinds of deals?  Parties in negotiation always evaluate their power position in negotiations. Parties who perceive that they hold a slightly lower power position often adopt more aggressive codes in which to negotiate, even though research reveals that this code generally offends the other party and results in less than optimum outcomes for all.  Yet, parties believing that they have a significantly lower power position often adopt a uniformly compliant code in negotiations.   Either type of code-an overly aggressive one, or an overly compliant one, as in the case of Chrysler-can hinder issue development. The higher-power may try to bully, but instead of being compliant, the other party must adopt a code that focuses on issue development, as revealed in the first challenge.  Again, the code must match the goal.

In many ways, asking negotiators to reflect on their communication code is very difficult. Often, negotiations are simply too busy focusing on strategy or managing the complex web of financial and other details that they skip right over the communication process.  Yet, we know that controlling this process is vital in moving the negotiation in productive directions.  Making sure that the appropriate codes are available when needed is like having the slingshot, or subtle weapon, that is just the right tool at the right time.

To begin gaining control of your communication code, start becoming aware of the codes you use casually around the house, at the office, or entertaining friends.  Notice when people switch codes and what happens as a result.  You will be amazed at how significant these shifts can be in moving talk in very different directions.  I like to say that, “Code is King.”  Respect the King, and he will be kind.