Speaking, Listening, and Interpretation in Negotiation

Let us move from the era of confrontation to the era of negotiation.”

-Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States

Three of the most important aspects of communication in negotiation are listening, speaking, and how information is interpreted. Carolyn Lee writes, “Effective communication skills are essential for negotiators. The gathering of support, selling of ideas, and motivation of staff all require speaking, listening, and interpretation skills,” (PM Magazine).

Lewicki points out that communication can come in two forms, verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication is referred to as messages that are encoded into verbal language. For example, words and sentences. Non-verbal communication can be described as non-verbal expressions such as facial gestures or body language. Furthermore, Lewicki writes about types of listening and how they can impact the interpretation of communications. Throughout this paper, I will describe how verbal communication, listening, and interpretation of communications all work to affect negotiations both positively and negatively.

Verbal Communication (Speaking)

Language is wine upon the lips.”

– Virginia Woolf, English Modernist Writer (1882-1941)

When two or more parties are involved in negotiations, speaking will be the most commonly used form of communication between the parties. Noted linguist and anthropologist John Kline has written much on the art of business speaking, while focusing much on the art of negotiating. The first step that Kline gives when one is preparing to negotiate is to “know your audience,” (www.au.af.mil/au). In other words, you must understand the background of the other party. For example, if you are negotiating with a foreign firm, you may not be able to speak your native language during the negotiations. In his writings about negotiations, Kline produced four steps to proper speaking during negotiations. The first of these four is “preparing the talk,” (Kline, www.au.af.mil/au.) This involves not only, knowing your audience, but also knowing what your firm’s goals are and how you effectively want to communicate these goals. Will your speaking need to be direct or indirect? Will the language used need to be proper or bucolic? These are questions that one must ask themselves before heading into negotiations with one or more other parties in order to make the other parties understand your firm’s needs and wants. Furthermore, Kline writes his second step of verbal negotiations as, “organizing your speech.” In this step of verbal communications, Kline says that proper verbal organization is a key to any firm’s success. By properly organizing your speech, one gives the other firm the opportunity to hear the organization’s point of view, as well as their wants and needs in a clear, cogent manner. The third step that Kline lists is, “support your talk.” In this step of verbal negotiation, Kline suggests that you back up your firm’s demands with verbal communication on why you deserve what you have asked for. As an example, Kline suggests the use of statistics, “When properly communicated, statistics are the most powerful support that we can use,” (www.au.af.mil) By properly using speech to communicate your support, such as statistics, the opposing firm(s) will further understand your plight. The final step that Kline gives is, “know when to end your speech.” When negotiation, there is a time when your verbal communications should end. If you pass this point, Kline writes that the opponents may suffer, “information overload,” (www.au.af.mil) In other words, if you continue verbal communication for to long, you may inundate the opposition with so much information that they cannot decipher your speech.

Lewicki also describes the use of language in communication. In Negotiations, he wrote “it is not only what is said, but how it is said. In other words, Lewicki has focused on how speech is delivered as to how it will be perceived by the other party. To further Kline’s steps for successful verbal communication, Lewicki writes, “a negotiator’s choice of words may not only signal a position but also shape and predict is,” (Lewicki).

”As one can see, the communication sender (Lewicki), is the first step in the communication process of negotiations. If the sender fails, the communications may very well fail due to a lack of understanding.


Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.”

– Karl A. Menninger, Psychologist (1893-1990)

The art of listening in negotiation is often overlooked by many. However, listening is of vital importance in that it leads directly to how the other party’s demands are understood, and how the other party is perceived.

Lewicki has identified three major forms of listening. The first of these is passive listening. This involves, “receiving the message while providing no feedback to the sender about the accuracy or completeness of the reception,” (Lewicki). Often times in negotiations, when one side is attempting to find their position, they will verbally communicate more than is necessary. In this case, passive listening involves the receiver listening to all that the sender has to say until they are able to work out their position.

The second form of listening that Lewicki has identified is referred to as acknowledgement. Acknowledgement is a slightly more active form of listening than passive listening. When a receiver is acknowledging, the receiver will “occasionally nod their heads, maintain eye contact, or interject responses like “I see,” “Mm-hmm,” “Really,” “Sure,” and “Go on,” (Lewicki). However, as Lewicki points out, acknowledgement can be useful to keep communications going, but has the chance to be misinterpreted by the sender as the receiver’s agreement with them, rather than as an acknowledgement of the message.

The final form of listening identified by Lewicki is active listening. Lewicki writes, “When receivers are actively listening, they restate or paraphrase the sender’s message in their own language.” Responding in a reflective way is a critical part of active listening. Lewicki reports that successful reflective responding is characterized by the following five points: 1.) a greater emphasis on listening than on speaking; 2.) responding to personal rather than abstract points; 3.) following the other rather than leading him or her into areas that the listener thinks should be explored; 4.) clarifying what the speaker has said about their own thoughts and feelings rather than questioning or suggesting what he or she should be thinking or feeling; and 5.) responding to the feelings the other has expressed. In negotiations, active listening works to have negotiators better understand their opponent’s “positions, the factors and information that support it, and the ways that the position can be compromised, reconciled, or negotiated in accordance with their own preferences and priorities,” (Lewicki).

“Listening is the ultimate strategic advantage,” (HighGain, www.highgain.com). Strong listening skills keep you attuned to what the marketplace, as well as your negotiation competitors are saying and thinking-with maximum clarity-so that your organization can innovate and compete successfully. The ability to listen in a penetrating, focused way gives you your negotiation opponents allows one to practice what HighGain refers to as the “Clarity Principle,” (HighGain, www.highgain.com). This principle is useful in negotiations and includes the following components: quality listening time, overcoming institutional barriers, fostering mutual respect, and creating management access. By practicing this principle in negotiations, active listening will increase and both sides will understand the wants and needs of the other party.

Despite the importance of listening, many negotiators receive much more training in reading, writing, and speaking. Listening often falls at the bottom of the hierarchy of negotiation skills. According to HighGain (www.highgain.com), 60% of a negotiators day is spent listening. With these recent statistics many top-of-the-line corporations such as IBM, Honda, Comcast, and Nordstrom, understanding the importance of listening skills, have begun enrolling their negotiators in special courses to teach them the art of listening. Linguist John Kline suggests that negotiators “Exercise their listening muscles,” (www.au.af.mil). What is meant by this is that listening, for many people, does not come easy. However, in order to be a successful negotiator, listening is one of the arts that must be mastered. In order to become a successful listener, Kline adds, one must “practice all types of listening at all available opportunities,” (www.au.af.mil).

As one can see, listening is often the most overlooked aspect of negotiation. However, it can be argued that it is the most important. By practicing proper listening skills, a negotiator can understand their opponent’s wants and needs, as well as weaknesses. Strong listening skills can give a negotiator the advantage that they need to succeed in all types of negotiations.


Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.”

-Karl Marx, German Philosopher (1818-1883)

One of the most important areas of negotiation for both the sender and receiver is the area of interpretation. Interpretation in negotiation is how one party views the other party. Interpretation can be influenced by many different factors such as cultural differences, gender differences, language barriers, business ethics, and the ethnocentrism and stereotypes of the individual negotiator.

Cultural differences can play a large role in negotiations. As Morrison points out, “Different cultures arrive at truth in different ways.” In other words, what is true in one culture may not be true in another. Negotiators that deal in cross-cultural negotiations deal with many different factors that people who negotiate in one culture do not generally face. These can be as simple as language differences, or as in-depth and complex as issues of equality and inequality or sources of anxiety for different cultures. An example of how cultural differences in negotiations can be detrimental can be seen in Morrison’s description of the negotiations between the Thom McAn shoe company, and the stores that would sell the shoes in Bangladesh. During negotiations, many Bangladeshi stores refused to sell the shoes unless the stamp inside the shoe that bore the name of Thom McAn. The shoe company refused and was able to find other stores that would sell the shoe. However, when the shoes went on sale, a riot broke out in which fifty people were injured. It seems that the “Thom McAn” signature stamp inside the shoe looks like the Arabic script for “Allah.” Outraged Muslims felt that McAn was attempting to get Muslims to desecrate the name of God by walking on it. This entire scene could have been avoided had the Tom McAn Company, during negotiations, understood the cultural differences that they would encounter.

When experiencing cultural differences during negotiations, a negotiator may also face a language barrier. This barrier can cause negotiations to stall, possibly fail. Morrison suggests speaking in international languages during negotiations. International languages of business include English, French, and to some extent, Mandarin.

Gender differences can also affect interpretation during negotiations. Rizzo and Associates (www.rizzoandassociates.com) maintain that men and women have different viewpoints when negotiating and have different “goals for negotiations.” They suggest that having “mixed negotiation teams” made up of both men and women, will cut down on the misinterpretation that can take place during negotiations and will lead to more successful negotiations.

Business ethics also play a large role in interpretation during negotiation. If one party has below average ethical standards for their negotiators, they will be more likely to attempt actions such as intimidation and coercion (Lewicki). However, if an organization’s negotiators are strong in their business ethics, they are more likely to interpret the other party’s signals correctly, leading to more successful negotiations. Also, the firm with strong business ethics is less likely to use intimidation tactics during negotiations.

Finally, a negotiator’s own stereotypes or ethnocentrisms can affect the interpretation that is needed during a negotiation. Negotiators will often frame situations to make them better for themselves. Often times, they use their stereotypes or ethnocentrisms as justification for framing. Stereotypes are beliefs about another person, group, or culture that are based on falsities. Ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture or way of life is better than all others and is the way that should be followed. By taking a small amount of time and understanding the culture or people that you will be negotiating with, stereotypes and ethnocentrisms can be broken.

By undertaking a small amount of training, negotiators can be taught the proper way to interpret during a negotiation. By getting rid of institutional and individual biases, interpretation during negotiation will become a time where negotiators are able to clearly interprete their opponents and work out strategies that benefit both organizations.


To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand.”

– Jose Ortega y Gasset, Spanish Philosopher

As evidenced from the resources used, the ideas of speaking, listening, and interpretation are valued skills among negotiators.

Throughout the course in negotiations, I have learned the ins and outs of the negotiation process. I feel that the three most important aspects of this process are verbal communication, listening, and interpretation. By mastering these three aspects, as well as by understanding negotiation procedure, one can become a successful negotiator.


  1. Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D.M, Minton, J.W., Barry, B. Negotiation, readings, exercises, and cases 4th edition. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York, NY, 10020, United States of America.
  2. Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D.M, Minton, J.W., Barry, B. Negotiation, 4th edition. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York, NY 10020, United States of America.
  3. Kline, John. Leadership, Ethics, and Command Central: Communication Skills. www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/awc-comm.htm
  4. Lee, Caroline. Effective Speaking and Presentation. From PM Magazine. www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/dau/leej-f.pdf
  5. Morrison, T., Conaway, A., Borden , G.A. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries. Adams Media Corporation. Avon, Massachusetts, United States of America.
  6. The Business of Listening. From www.highgain.com

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