There’s an old expression: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Assuming that your goal is not to actually catch flies, but instead, to get what you want in some kind of negotiation, the expression means that a warm and friendly approach will be best. And I have known many attorneys who feel the same regarding their interactions with opposing counsel. Sometimes, to the astonishment of their own clients, the interactions with the other side can be friendly, or even jovial, up to a point. But is the adage correct? Is a polite and friendly negotiating posture really better than a tough and firm negotiating posture?

According to an interesting new research study, the answer is “No,” and the vinegar seems to do better than the honey. A team of researchers from Harvard University looked at attempts to negotiate discounts during a telephone or Craigslist correspondence and based on laboratory as well as real world testing, they look at the advantages of “warm and friendly” communication versus “tough and firm” communication. The result they found was, “Negotiators with a tough and firm communication style achieved better economic outcomes than negotiators with a warm and friendly communication style in both a field experiment and a laboratory experiment.” And it was not by a little. When researchers adapted the warm and friendly approach when trying the buy, that caused the seller to respond with a more aggressive counter-offer. As a result, the warm and friendly negotiators ended up paying 15 percent more. “The evidence suggests,” the team concluded, “that negotiators could save effort, achieve better economic outcomes, and experience greater satisfaction by toughening up.”

The Study: Politeness Does Not Pay

The intuition that it helps to be nice in an adversarial situation is based on the psychology of ‘reciprocity’ – If you’re nice to them, the hope is that they’ll be nice to you in return. But does that actually work in distributive or zero-sum negotiations? To find out, the research team trained natural language algorithm processors to quantify the difference between warm and friendly and tough and firm styles, and then observe those styles in natural and laboratory communications. The friendly communications tended to be longer, and to include more expressions of politeness. They explain, “Warm and friendly messages were more likely to use salutations, express gratitude, make more indirect requests and statements, and use more qualifying language.”

Here is what a sample, “warm and friendly” approach sounded like:

“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!”

The tough and firm approach, on the other hand, was much more to the point:

“Hi! I want to buy this sugar bowl from you, and I can offer you $250 for it. Do we have a deal?”

The result was that the first version induced higher counter-offers from the seller. As a result, the sugar bowl, or whatever was being sold, tended to go for 15 percent more on average, in both the laboratory and the field.

And, counter to what one might expect, the seller in the transaction did not report different levels of satisfaction depending on whether the buyer’s approach was warm and friendly or tough and firm. This was, in fact, at odds with participants’ naïve beliefs: “participants believe that authors of warmly worded negotiation offers will be better liked and will achieve better economic outcomes,” but they don’t.

The Implications:

The Manner Matters

In negotiations, it is not just the economics that matter, it is also the manner in which an offer is made. Lawyers might be expected to be more hard-nosed than those selling a sugar bowl, and would not consciously discount the value of offer because of how it is made. But lawyers are still human, and if tough and firm approaches tend to have an advantage in the outside world, then it’s a safe bet that they have an advantage in the legal world as well.

So Be Tough and Firm

Many of us have a faith in the value of warmth and politeness, but the authors argue that extending that faith to the realm of negotiations is a faulty belief. It does not bear out in the research. Particularly in the setting of litigation, negotiations are not a time to burden the communications with excessive politeness, or to express issues that are yours and not theirs, or to apologize for not being able to offer more. Instead, it is a time to be firm and no-nonsense.

But Don’t Be a Jerk

These research findings justify being clear and to the point, and they justify leaving out some of the niceties. They don’t justify being insulting or pointlessly aggressive. Be human, but without sacrificing your power in the interactions. The researchers found, for example, that “when individuals believe that enacting warmth will be helpful in a negotiation, they do so by increasing their politeness, which causes them to be perceived by their counterparts as having lower dominance.” Being nice in this case meant performing a disempowered role, which weakened their hand in negotiations. So, no need to be rude, but be clear and to the point.