Dear Negotiation Coach: Does Communication Style Matter in Negotiation?

Is it better to appear warm or tough in negotiation? Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules in Work and in Life, answers this persistent question about communication style.

By — on / Teaching Negotiation

communication style

We recently spoke with Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino about communication style in negotiations. The question arises frequently of whether you can achieve better results with a tough, no nonsense approach or through a coming across as more approachable and warm. The reality is more nuanced, however, as Professor Gino describes.

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NB: In your research, you compared whether a warm and friendly negotiating style or a tough and firm negotiating style is more effective in distributive negotiation, where people are dividing rather than creating value. Which style do people tend to think will be more effective, and are they correct?

Francesca Gino: Consistent with the old adage “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” most participants in our studies expected a warm communication style to be more effective than a tough one in negotiation. But, in fact, we found the opposite: Negotiators who used a tough style reached better deals than negotiators with a warm communication style.

In a field study, we had a research assistant respond to nearly 800 Craigslist ads for used iPhones being sold in various U.S. cities. The research assistant (using a fictitious email address) sent a message to each seller asking for a discount, using either a warm and friendly style or a tough and firm style. We were interested in seeing whether the seller would respond and, if he or she did, whether he or she would grant a discount. Our results show that the message style did not affect the likelihood of a seller responding but did affect the size of any discount granted. Specifically, a tough, firm communication style generated greater price concessions than a warm and friendly communication style—on average, savings of an additional $35 for a $435 phone.

It seems that popular intuition about which communication style may get us the best deals is misguided. We prefer a warm communication style, but a tough one results in better deals in a distributive negotiation, at least in a one-off session.

Your field experiment found results for first offers, but negotiations often go on a bit longer.

FG: That’s true. In our field study, we were able to capture only one round of bargaining—we didn’t want real sellers to think they had found a buyer for their phone, so our research assistant wrote a second email that ended the negotiation after hearing back from the seller. We conducted follow-up studies in the controlled environment of a laboratory to see if communication style would influence the back-and-forth that generally happens in a negotiation.

In one of our lab studies, we found that negotiators who used a warm communication style paid 15% more for the same item and earned lower bonus payments as compared to those who used a tough style. Sellers who negotiated with warm buyers made initial counteroffers that were much more aggressive and were able to extract more concessions during the negotiation. Interestingly, sellers who interacted with “tough” buyers enjoyed the interaction just as much as those who interacted with “warm” buyers.

Why is a warm negotiating style less effective in distributive negotiations?

FG: In negotiation, communicating in a warm style translates into greater politeness, including using salutations more frequently and expressing gratitude more often. But when negotiators are more polite, their counterparts perceive them as less dominant and less powerful. The counterpart then sees an opening and ends up making more aggressive offers.

Do you think a warm style would be more effective in a negotiation where people have opportunities to collaborate?

FG: We’ll soon conduct studies to explore how communication styles affect collaboration in integrative negotiations. We believe we may find similar results. A warm communication style may help negotiators expand the pie more often or more effectively, but when it comes to dividing up the pie, the other party may still negotiate more aggressively with a negotiator who seems warm than with one who seems tough.

In your experiments, negotiators exchanged offers in writing. Do you think your results would be different for in-person negotiations?

FG: I recently ran a little experiment in one of my negotiation classes so that I could talk about the results of this research in class. Though the students negotiated face-to-face, those whom I instructed to use a warm style still ended up with worse deals than those whom I instructed to be tough and firm. This evidence suggests that the findings may hold up whether offers are delivered in writing or face-to-face.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in. In terms of communication or negotiation style, is it better to appear warm or tough in negotiation?

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