Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The Presidential Debate – Negotiation and Body Language Lessons

Was he nervous? He kept licking his lips.

This article is written from the point of examining the candidates’ body language in the third presidential debate. It is not an assessment indicating the readiness of either candidate to be president of the United States.

The debate opened with both men shaking the hand of the other. I noted the president’s other hand was high on Romney’s arm, almost on his shoulder. Romney kept his other hand on the president’s arm, but not as high as the president’s shoulder. As I’ve stated in other articles about the debates, when someone places his hand on or very close to the other person’s shoulder, that’s a sign of control. In the case of the debate, it set the tone for what would follow. Based on that observation, I noted that the president went on the offensive first; he did so very early in the debate and it appeared as though his quickness caught Romney off guard.

Subliminal Signals:

The president called Governor Romney, governor. That was a subtle reminder, by the president, that Romney was a governor, not the president. Subliminal messages are conveyed when we communicate; they set the tone that indicates how someone will be positioned and viewed. Thus, it allows one person to frame how the other party will be perceived. In a negotiation, always frame your position before the other party attempts to frame it.

Lip Licking and Swallowing:

Lip licking and swallowing is a sign that can indicate that someone is nervous. I noted Romney licked his lips and/or swallowed at least 17 times during the debate. It gave me cause to consider that he may have thought he was going to be behind the proverbial eight ball, as the result of the president being more knowledgeable on the subject of foreign affairs. Romney’s lip licking and swallowing was akin to Paul Ryan (Vice Presidential Candidate) drinking water during the vice presidential debate. The negotiation lesson is, don’t give away tales that tell what your mind is thinking.

Eye Blinking:

Romney’s eye blinking increased the more he and the president engaged in the debate. Blinking is another sign of nervousness. It has to be positioned against what is ‘normal’ for the person committing the act, but once that has been observed and established, one can get a sense of the degree that a person is becoming nervous based on the increased blinking that person displays.


I observed the president fiddled with a pen during a lot of the debate when Romney spoke. That’s a sign that the president was performing a self-soothing maneuver, which may have served to keep him calm. In a negotiation, performing self-soothing/touching yourself can give insight into how you feel about an aspect of the negotiation.


The president kept Romney on the defensive and was more aggressive throughout the debate. When negotiating, if the other party is defending their position, they’re not advancing their cause. One must decide before entering into a negotiation how one will project his image, how he’ll position his points, and how those points will be delivered. In the third debate, Romney appeared as though he did not want to make any mistakes and thus he appeared cautious for most of the debate.

Style Points:

In a negotiation and any environment in which you’re in, one gets style points, because body language matters. With some studies indicating our communication is conveyed up to 93% via our body language, people observe what we do with our body when we speak, versus the words we use. In the third debate, Romney appeared not to engage the president as he had in the past. The intent may have been for him to appear less aggressive, but I’m sure to some, his demeanor came across as being less experienced and less knowledgeable than the president.

When negotiating, the way in which you make your pronouncements can be more effective than the words used to highlight a contrasting point.


  • From a body language perspective, Romney was somewhat able to hold his own with the president; this statement handicaps Romney’s performance based on the viewpoint that the president has much more national intelligence about world events, since he lives the role as president on a daily basis.
  • When you’re in a negotiation, watch your body language. Licking lips, swallowing, and your eye-blinking rate, gives insight to an astute body language observer, that you may be experiencing nervousness. Depending upon when that occurs, you allow the other party to sense your potential vulnerability.
  • The president kept Romney on the defensive. From a negotiation perspective, to the degree that both parties are even, the one that’s able to have his agenda pursued will usually be the one that comes out ahead.
  • Romney closed very strongly. He appeared to be circumspective. People remember what is stated in the beginning and end of a presentation. Remember that when you’re negotiating. During the president’s closing remarks, he used his right hand to make his strong points. Then he went back to using his left hand to make points that were not as strong. Romney used his hand gestures to indicate the negative with his right hand, while using his left hand to indicate the positive. When hand gestures are used, in order to be consistent (congruence), speak to the past or negative while using one had and use the opposite hand to denote the opposite position.
  • From a body language point of view, I believe polls will indicate the president won the third and final debate. Regardless, if that’s right or wrong. The man that captures the magical 270 electoral votes will be the president of the United States, and for him … everything will be right with the world.

Remember, you’re always negotiating!

Scroll to Top