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How to Use Space in Negotiations

Space. Such an interesting concept. Different meanings jump to mind for different people, whether the space you live in, being spaced out, space cadets, giving each other space or proximity to others. Humans continue to be fascinated by conquering space frontiers (from the moon to mars and beyond). Heck, even monkeys have been to space. So, perhaps it’s appropriate to chat about spatial consideration in negotiations (or if you want to get fancy … proxemics).

What is proxemics? The branch of study that focuses on how humans view and interpret the use of space, particularly its direct impact on behaviour, communication, and social interactions. You may have noticed that these are all elements in negotiation. So let’s consider the oft-ignored use of proxemics for improved negotiations. Mastering this concept can mean the difference between commanding a room or shrinking in it, taking control or being overwhelmed.

Let’s start with those all-important personal space zones. What are they?

  • Intimate space: the closest “bubble” of space surrounding a person. Entry into this space is acceptable only for the closest friends and intimates (however temporary or long-term they may be).
  • Social and consultative spaces: the spaces in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers.
  • Public space: the area of space beyond which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and relatively anonymous.

Note that these personal space zones vary by culture, age, population density and even personality. We all have our own comfort zones in terms of personal space. I often joke with my daughter that she treats her intimate circle in the way others treat public space – she wants a wide berth, a protective bubble in her interactions. Outside of the personal, compare a large city to a small town. In urban centres you’re squished into subways, bumped on the streets, crammed into elevators, etc. By contrast, in rural communities, it’s less acceptable to bump someone on the street, or sit beside them on a park bench. The size of the personal space zone increases based on the density of the population. Another important example is the cultural differences in personal space. In many large cities in Asia, while riding the subway, it is acceptable for a stranger to fall asleep on your shoulder. In North America, this type of proximity would likely cause some discomfort.

How can you apply this in your negotiations? Consider the negotiating or bargaining space. Here are a few examples:

  • How big is the room? Do you want to create intimacy or not? Do you want a comfortable space for the amount of people involved or not? What’s the temperature? Again, are you striving for a comfortable environment or not?
  • How does the room design impact the discussions? Are there windows, light, and airflow? This becomes an issue after hours of negotiating and be an advantage or hindrance to effective bargaining. You may find yourself or the other party making concessions just to get out of the room.
  • Type of chairs? This one may come as a surprise. Some negotiators try to use proxemics to their advantage by having two variations of chairs in the negotiation room, some set to a taller height than the others and/or some more comfortable than others.
  • Table or room set up? Is the table set up in an adversarial manner, with each party on either side of the table? Although this may seem like the default seating plan, it is not necessarily the most effective for negotiations. Having members of your negotiation team sitting directly beside the opposing team can subconsciously increase harmonization. Also consider alternative room set-ups, whether circle or theatre style depending on the nature of the discussions.
  • Personal space is critical: Using proxemics to understand and identify your zone during negotiations is important to guarantee fluid negotiations. Staying in the social zone is typically recommended. If you are constantly in someone’s personal or intimate zone you will come off as less reasonable, more intimidating, and likely to break down negotiations. Again, however, some see this as a possible tactical move to engage.
  • Engaging the space: Be intentional about your use of space in negotiations. Use the room to your advantage. Most people ought to stay seated, across the table from each other during formal bargaining. There can be great advantage to more fully using the space in a room, including crossing the imaginary divide between the parties.
  • Additionally, consider personal space when giving a handshake: Regardless of gender, a handshake should be firm, direct, and initiated by you as it shows a willingness to work together. Find a neutral strength handshake and adjust to match the “squeeze” of the other person.

Most people overlook this aspect of bargaining altogether. As a result, you’ll be at an advantage when you bring this skill and awareness to the table. When you’re able to utilize proxemics –using space to your advantage with intention in your negotiations, you elevate your bargaining position, power, influence and results.

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