Friendliness Within Hostile Relationships–A Barrier to Negotiation?

A friendly fox? (Photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

A study of social behavior is titled, “Barriers to Transforming Hostile Relations: Why Friendly Gestures Can Backfire.”  [Fn. 1]

The findings and implications of this study are significant for mediation and other negotiation contexts!

Background & Essential Finding

Everyone knows that friendliness builds rapport and smooths the cogs of social interaction.

According to the study, however, friendliness in the context of a hostile relationship can create confusion and provoke a backlash.

The study finds, across three experiments, that an enemy’s friendly gestures lead counterparts to assign blame to them, to perceive them as unlucky, and to avoid them.

Prior research suggests that friendly gestures toward an enemy fail to achieve positive effects “because they are perceived as cheap talk” or “manipulative.”  This study adds another reason why friendly gestures can backfire:

  • Because the friendly gestures “unnerve their recipients and create confusion.”

Implications of the Study

What follows are four “implications” the study identifies.

–Power and persistence of enemy relationships.

In showing how friendly gestures fail to overturn preexisting negative expectations, the study “underscores the power and persistence of negativity”: 

  • Preexisting negative expectations are a tainting lens that distorts the value of concessions and the meaning of apparently friendly overtures;
  • One illustration of the “enduring power of negativity,” is the idea that “adding the most delicious accompaniments to a plate full of cockroaches would still not make it edible”—i.e., “friendly enemies” are like a “plate of cockroaches on a bed of chocolate and whipped cream”; and
  • Instead of redeeming a negative enemy relationship, a little friendliness can heighten anxiety.


People who see negativity in others also see those other people “as capable of transmitting that negativity.”

When people encounter an uncontrollable circumstance, they attribute the difficulty of the circumstance to human agency, rather than to chaotic, random and impersonal events.  They tend to “see other people as the nefarious agents of deviousness who carry bad luck.”

This study suggests that:

  • When enemies directly compete and can actually affect each other’s outcomes, the tendency to blame the enemy is even more pronounced;
  • People worry that enemies can indirectly (and perhaps magically) translate negative intentions into negative outcomes; and
  • People see enemies as carrying and transmitting bad luck through their mere presence—in other words, people can “put a human face on luck”;

–Hostility is a Natural Expression of Conflict

Friendliness cannot simply eradicate and replace hostility. 

In recognition of this reality, societies try to limit and control the way people express hostility, recognizing hostility as a natural, unsurprising, and predictable expression of difficult relationships.

–Limits of Friendly Gestures in Building Trust

Even though friendliness can offer a way to circumvent negative spirals, it does not provide a panacea for hostile relationships. 

Past research shows that trust, (i) decays catastrophically (a single dishonest gesture destroys it), but (ii) builds incrementally. 

This study shows that hostility is a barrier, that prevents “the seeds of trust” from ever being planted.

Study’s Recommendation

The study asks this question: “How then might one best cope with the discomforting uncertainty of [hostile] relationships?”

In response, the study offers this recommendation.  People need to:

  • “acknowledge that enemy relations may never be truly transformed”;  
  • seek to contain the “disruptive potential” of enemy relations “by, for example, practicing simple avoidance”; and
  • “watch [enemies] vigilantly” in an effort to “make sense of them accurately.”


All professionals, in a mediation session or other negotiation context, need to be aware of the findings and implications of this study, in order to effectively lead the parties into a best-possible circumstances for achieving a settlement.    


Footnote 1.  This study is cited as Adam Galinsky, Tanya Menon, and Oliver Sheldon. “Barriers to Transforming Hostile Relations: Why Friendly Gestures Can Backfire.” Negotiation and Conflict Management Research 7, no. 1 (February 2014): 17-37. 

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