A hostage negotiator's guide to asking for a pay rise

Give yourself an edge during your next salary negotiation – learn how to tell what your boss is really thinking, and find out how much you should be asking for.

Ever wonder whether your boss is being upfront during salary negotiations? The secret to knowing for sure is in his or her body language, according to Michael Sjøberg, a former hostage negotiator whose firm, Human Advisor Group, helps executives learn crisis management.

There are five things in particular he says you should be keeping an eye on.

1. Head

During his time as an intelligence officer, Sjøberg learned the importance of being prepared. If you want to know whether your boss is saying one thing but thinking another, you need to learn how he or she reacts in various situations. Like, does an adrenaline rush make your boss’s throat and neck get flushed? Or, does being ashamed of something cause your boss to avoid eye contact? Or, does your boss nod when refusing to give you a pay rise and shake his or head when agreeing to give you one?

It’s also important to know what motivates your boss. Maybe success is more important than money. Sometimes it’s recognition that matters most; in still other cases, you’d be wise to let your boss take credit for your good idea.

2. Breathing

There are certain signs someone might be lying that you should commit to memory. One of them is changes in breathing or speaking patterns. One good example of this was a 1998 interview with Bjarne Riis, a Danish professional cyclist who long denied using performance-enhancing drugs. Asked directly during one interview, he answered “No,” but a difference in his breathing suggested otherwise. 

In such cases, Sjøberg explains, the person’s mind seeks to prevent the lie by trying make the body swallow it. It does this by flooding the body with stress hormones, which increase the individual’s heartrate and force his or her breathing to become shallower and more rapid. 

3. Body language

We are constantly trying to read other people’s body language, in part because it says a lot more about what they are thinking than what comes out of their mouth. Our primate brain unconsciously registers signals and tries to make sense of them for us. It is easier to read the body language of someone you are familiar with than someone you’ve met only recently. 

One example: if your boss normally clicks his or her pen, then clicking it during a salary negotiation probably doesn’t signify anything out of the ordinary. But, instinctively touching vulnerable body parts, like the face, throat, chest or abdomen, might be a sign of unease or uncertainty.

4. Hands

Studies from the US show that judges are more likely to believe someone on trial for a crime if they can see the person’s hands. Similarly, some bosses have learned to put their hands behind their head and stick out their chest (known as the Cobra position) when they want to signal dominance, or when they want to intimidate someone. 

On the other hand, if your boss touches his or her throat, it might be a sign of insecurity. The best thing to do in that situation is often to back down a bit, in order to prevent him or her from getting defensive. And, if you ask for a pay rise and are met with crossed arms, you can probably forget about it.

5. Feet

It is said that hostage-takers can tell whether a negotiator is sitting calmly, standing still or pacing while he or she is talking. Partly, this is because our stress reaction, and thus how we speak, is affected by the way our feet are in contact with the floor or ground. A person who is sitting, feet solidly planted on the floor, is perceived to be most confident of all.

If your boss’s legs are stretched out, it’s normally a sign of relaxation – and a good opportunity to ask for a pay rise. Feet pulled back under the chair is a sign your boss isn’t too keen on your idea and is trying to retreat. Feet pointing towards the door is also a good indication your boss is going to turn you down.

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk.

Do your homework

The next time you need to talk pay with your boss, do yourself a favour and find out how much you are worth ahead of time. Djøf’s salary calculator can give you an idea of how much you should be earning, based on your education, experience, field of work, location and position.