Negotiations are a fundamental part of human interaction, and we all want to get the most out of them. Some people may assume that being warm and friendly will work in our favor. After all, this is what our parents taught us: be nice and polite to strangers, and they’ll be nice to you in return. Even many business book authors share this worldview.
However, recent research by Harvard Business School suggests that this may not always be the case. Instead, adopting a tough and firm communication style may lead to better outcomes in zero-sum negotiations.
When it doesn’t pay to be nice
In four separate experiments involving over 1,500 participants, the researchers tested the effects of warm and friendly versus tough and firm communication styles while keeping economic factors constant. The participants were instructed to make identical initial offers while keeping track of concession patterns so that the researchers could measure the effect of communication style accurately.
The initial field study used Craigslist.com, a platform where price negotiations are not only common but expected. A research assistant sent messages from a fictitious Gmail account, using a gender-neutral name, to smartphone sellers on the platform.
The assistant sent three different warm messages and three different tough messages, randomly varying the communication style in the initial message but always asking for a 20% discount from the seller’s original price. When a seller replied, the negotiation was over regardless of their positive or negative response. This was partly to simplify the conditions of the experiment but also not to waste the seller’s time with disingenuous inquiries.
An example of a warm initial message asking for a discount reads:
Hi there—I’m happy to see your post about the phone. This iPhone matches what I wanted to buy – you must have great taste :). Is there any chance you could sell it to me for 80% of the listed price? Given the prices on similar phones currently for sale, I would really appreciate it, and it would help me out a lot! I live in the area, and I can come to meet you anywhere that is convenient for you. Please let me know by tomorrow if the price is ok for you—and thank you so much for your time and consideration. Hope you have a wonderful day. – Sincerely, Riley
In contrast, a tough offer inquiry reads:
I saw your post about the phone! This iPhone matches what I wanted to buy. I’m willing to pay 80% of the listed price. Given the prices on similar phones currently for sale, I’m firm on that price. I live in the area, and I can meet you wherever. Let me know by tomorrow if the price is ok for you or else I’ll move on. – Riley
Researchers found that both warm and friendly messages and tough and firm messages were equally likely to elicit a counteroffer. But while firm messages generated more active rejections (24%) than warm messages (14%), warm messages were more likely to be ignored (54%) than firm messages (45%). This places the ‘being nice’ strategy at a disadvantage in this online context because it’s generally better to receive an active rejection than getting ‘ghosted’ because a rejection still provides an opportunity to continue negotiations.
Most importantly though, when sellers did offer a discount, it was larger when the message was tough and firm. Sellers were more willing to accept the 80% discount offer when it came from a tough buyer (about 13%) than from a friendly buyer (less than 9%).
The average phone price in the study sample was $435, so this means that the tough and firm requests generated $35 more savings per phone than the warm and friendly requests.
Do we have a deal?
In another experiment, this time live in the lab with 140 participants, the researchers could observe the negotiation process from start to finish, not just the first offer and the counter-offer. Participants were randomly assigned to play the role of either the buyer or seller of a bowl for ten minutes. The buyer always made the first offer using either a friendly or tough communication style.
One participant who had to communicate in a friendly made this offer:
Hey there. So I’m looking at this beautiful sugar bowl, which I would love to have to complete my set. It’s the last piece I need to complete what a dear relative of mine used when we would spend time together and it would mean a lot for me to have it, but I don’t have so much to offer. If you’d be willing, I can offer $250 for it. Please let me know!
Meanwhile, the tough offer looked like this:
Hi! I want to buy this sugar bowl from you, and I can offer you $250 for it. Do we have a deal?
According to the findings, the warm and friendly negotiators ended up paying about 15% more for the same product than the tough and firm participants. Why though?
When met with an aggressive take-it-or-leave-it offer, sellers often engage in equally aggressive counter-offers, allowing steep discounts. Meanwhile, friendly buyers were more likely to make concessions with the sellers.
When they analyzed the content of the negotiation conversations, the researchers speculated that the warm and friendly style of negotiation may be perceived as low in dominance, which may entice sellers to think they can extract more from them.
Furthermore, sellers didn’t mind dealing with tough buyers, rating both types of buyers equally during follow-up questionnaires.
These rounds of experiments suggest that being tough and firm can save you more money in your negotiations than being friendly and warm to the seller — but with some caveats. The negotiations were all distributive, meaning they involved bargaining over the price of a specific item. That’s in contrast to integrative or multi-issue negotiations where items and services can be proposed or withdrawn throughout the negotiation process. In the former, the ‘pie’ so to speak is fixed whereas in the latter, more complex kind of negotiation the pie can be expanded.
The authors of the study note that people shouldn’t interpret these findings like they need to be jerks to earn more from their negotiations. The ‘tough’ buyers were still respectful. Moreover, they note that there is a time and place when being overly nice in a negotiation is the better call — even if that means losing money, time, or some other resource that you value in the short term.
For instance, if you are negotiating with your spouse about who should do which chore, it could be in your best interests to lose some ground by making more concessions. Despite the cost, you may be winning by preserving the relationship. However, these costs are incurred knowingly and strategically, whereas a person who is overly friendly in negotiations may wrongly assume that others will return the favor (and get frustrated when it inevitably doesn’t happen).
The findings appeared in the journal Management Science.