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Using the right words at the right time – this is of major importance in difficult negotiations. Therefore, make sure the other party understands what you are saying at all times. Use the subjunctive mood so you avoid committing too early.

Analyzing language in negotiations is an art and allows you to hear more, especially about hidden motives. What has the opposite party said, what did they want to say, what did they mean, and why did they say that? 

Professor Friedemann Schulz von Thun built upon the trans- actional analysis and developed a method called the Communication Square to interpret dialogues. According to his method, successful communication depends on “the ability to see through mental activity and interpersonal complications”. With the communication square, every word, every gesture and facial expression of a person can be analyzed on four levels.

Let’s take a basic example penned by Schulz von Thun: a married couple is driving through town with the wife at the wheel and the husband in the passenger seat. There is a traffic light around 150 feet ahead and the light is green. The husband says to his wife, “Look, the light ahead is green.” What is the meaning of this sentence? To answer this question, we will use the Communication Square.


Factual level. Literally, this sentence states a simple fact:  the traffic light is green.
Appeal. Every comment contains an appeal, a request to do or not to do something. In this case, the husband wants his wife to drive faster.

Self-revelation. Every message gives important insights into the dialogue partner. What kind of person are they? We might deduce that the husband is an alert and attentive passenger or perhaps he is in a hurry. Self-revelation is always visible, even if we try to disguise it. When we try to conceal self-revelation, a trained negotiating partner will see right through us. You, too will be able to look through your negotiating partner with this knowledge.
Relationship. This side shows the relationship between the dialogue partners and what they think of each other. A balance of power exists if both negotiating partners are on the same level. If you are on a lower level you will have to rise up, otherwise there cannot be a satisfactory agreement.
What does one partner think of the other partner in the role of a driver? Does the husband think he is a better driver than his wife?

When we analyze a statement, it is important to consider all sides of the communication square. The factual and appeal levels are straightforward, but the self-
revelation and relationship levels require much more attention.

The communication square is also a useful tool to recognize and solve interference in communications. It is normal for us in everyday life to say something that our dialogue partner interprets in a different way. When the husband says, “look, the light ahead is green” the wife can interpret this statement in four different ways, corresponding to each side of the square.

Factual: the reaction may be “Thanks, I have seen it.”
Appeal: the reaction may be “OK, I will drive faster.”
Self-revelation: the reaction may be “Are you in a hurry?”
Relationship: the reaction may be “Why don’t you drive yourself?”

Herein lies the solution to many communication problems. If you say something to your partner and get a different reaction than expected, remember that your message may be interpreted with a “different ear”. So if the husband is in a rush and his wife replies “why don’t you drive yourself”, there is an interference in their communication. He expressed his appeal in such a way that allowed his wife to choose how to interpret what he said. This could have been avoided very easily. Saying “please drive faster, I’m in a hurry” would have been a clear appeal that would have been received in the “appeal ear”.  Why didn’t he say what he wanted? Maybe he did not want to be a typical backseat driver. If there is room to interpret, then we will most likely decide to receive things on the emotional level as most communication is transmitted on the relation level.

If you sense that your negotiating partner is reacting differently to how you expect, then an interference in the relationship level is the likely reason. These interferences come about when your negotiating partner has the feeling that they are one step above or below you on the relationship stairs.

Use subjunctive mood

In difficult negotiations, we recommend using the subjunctive mood exclusively. Use sentences like «What we could talk about is….» or «It could be a potential alternative to do….”. Use modifiers to weaken your statements, such as «potentially» or «in case…». This will help you avoid commitments while getting additional information from your negotiating partner. 

The moment you notice surprise or rejection in your negotiating partner, you can return to safe ground without releasing any information. However, do analyze why your partner reacted with surprise or rejection. You can ask your partner if your suggestion would be acceptable if you worded it differently. 

Sometimes it is helpful to play dumb to get more information. Use sentences like «could you explain that in more detail» or «what I don’t understand is…” will help you here. In most cases, people will give you more information than intended. 

After having offered alternatives, you could signal that you are ready to think about concessions. For example «where I see an opportunity for agreements is …..». When doing this, observe the reaction of the opposite side and keep all your options open by using the subjunctive mood. A commitment comes at the last minte – not earlier.