Dear Negotiation Coach: Before Saying Thank You, Think of the Context

A questionable sale made through Sotheby’s highlights the need to vet third parties in negotiation with care.

By on / Negotiation Skills

Q: This may sound like a trivial question, but it’s been bothering me. When my negotiation counterparts make a favorable concession or give me something I want, I find myself holding back from thanking them. I worry that saying thank you may put me in a position of weakness. On the other hand, I don’t want to be perceived as unappreciative of their willingness to cooperate. What do you recommend?

A: First of all, thank you for this question, which is less trivial than it may first seem. Let’s start by reflecting on gratitude, a positive emotion.

Feeling grateful is nearly synonymous with happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction. And expressing gratitude to others increases social closeness, liking, and perceptions of similarity. Numerous negotiation experts have stressed the power of expressing appreciation and showing gratitude as a way of inspiring cooperation and reciprocation.

Despite the abundant benefits of gratitude, we also need to consider when and why expressing gratitude might have negative consequences, especially in a culture where saying thank you has become routine.

In my recent research with Jeremy A. Yip, Kelly Kiyeon Lee, and Cindy Chan, I investigated how saying thank you influences outcomes in negotiations. Across five experimental studies in the lab and field, we found that people who received grateful messages in single-issue, distributive negotiations made more aggressive counteroffers than did people who received neutral messages from their counterparts. This was the case because those who expressed gratitude were perceived as more agreeable—that is, more tolerant and forgiving—which led their negotiation partners to take advantage of them by acting more aggressively.

Importantly, avoiding the phrase “thank you” did not influence the rate of impasse. This finding suggests that the harmful effect of expressing gratitude on performance is driven by a higher willingness to take advantage of a grateful counterpart rather than a decreased willingness to interact with a counterpart who omits a thank you. In addition, these findings were not just about the words thank you or even about negotiation behavior. Negotiators were also more willing to take advantage of grateful counterparts after reading an online profile in which the counterpart described himself as a “grateful person” who is “thankful for all the people in my life.”

In our study, hearing the words thank you caused negotiators to make inferences and predictions about their counterpart that in turn influenced their decisions. Although grateful people are typically associated with traits that are considered to be desirable (such as friendliness) and elicit positive responses in social interactions (such as liking), expressing gratitude can be detrimental in certain types of negotiation. Why? Because negotiation is an interpersonal interaction that people often view as competitive.

Thus, whereas expressing gratitude may be a winning strategy in most social settings, saying thank you can lead to poorer performance and satisfaction in single-issue negotiations. Our findings are consistent with research by University of Amsterdam professor Gerben Van Kleef and his colleagues that suggests the inferences people make about others’ emotional expressions depend on whether the situation encourages cooperation or competition.

Notably, in our studies, reframing the negotiation in cooperative terms mitigated the effects: Receiving a gratitude expression did not increase selfish behavior in cooperative contexts.

So here’s my advice: Think about the nature of your negotiation. Have you negotiated with this person before? Will you negotiate with her again? If you are negotiating with a salesperson over the price of a new car, then saying thank you in response to a concession is likely to put you in a position of weakness  that the salesperson may use to claim more value—and you are likely to get a worse price.

In contrast, if you are negotiating with a business partner—someone you need to interact with in the future and care about—in a negotiation with value-creation potential, then saying thank you may be a powerful way to signal your preferences, engender trust, and improve the relationship.

Alison Wood Brooks
Assistant Professor
Harvard Business School

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