A Negotiations Study: Being “Tough & Firm” v. “Warm & Friendly”

Not tough and firm (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Being “tough and firm” in negotiations:

  • Takes “less effort than being warm and friendly”; 
  • Results “in better financial outcomes; 
  • has “no apparent social cost”; but
  • is commonly viewed, incorrectly, as less effective than “warm and friendly.”

Such are the conclusions drawn from a four-part study [Fn. 1] on “distributive” negotiations [Fn. 2].


The goal of the four-part study was to answer this question:

  • To achieve the most advantageous outcome in negotiations, should one strive to come across as warm and friendly or tough and firm?

The Four Studies

Study 1 finds that individuals adopt vastly different styles of communication when instructed to be warm and friendly, versus tough and firm: e.g., warm and friendly messages take more effort to compose and have a longer word count than tough and firm messages.

Study 2 examines “real transactions” and finds that a buyer’s purchase offer delivered in tough and firm language is more likely to obtain a better discount than when an equivalent offer is delivered in warm and friendly language.

Study 3 looks at an entire negotiation process and finds that tough and firm negotiations achieve higher economic gains (recipients make greater concessions) at no discernable social costs (opposing negotiators indicate no difference in enjoyment or satisfaction between warm and friendly v. tough and firm communications from opposing negotiators).

Study 4 shows that individuals overwhelmingly believe that opposing negotiators would respond more favorably and make greater concessions to warm and friendly negotiations.

Some Observations

The “tough and firm” conclusion has limitations.  And the four-part study should not be viewed as a license for a “tough and firm” posture in every life context.

Here are some observations.

  1. “Tough and firm” communications are materially different from “rude and abusive”—the latter will undoubtedly result in discernable social costs.
  2. Negotiators can never be certain of the opposition’s room-to-move in negotiations and are always looking for cues on how firm the opposition’s position might be—“tough and firm” v. “warm and friendly” are among those cues.
  3. “Tough and firm” communications convey a greater sense of certainty and determination than “warm and friendly” communications.
  4. A “tough and firm” posture is an expected and acceptable posture in negotiations generally—even when such posture is mere puffing.
  5. All offers and counter-offers in the four-part study are within the range of acceptability—otherwise, a “tough and firm” posture would achieve a no-deal result.
  6. The four-part study is limited to “distributive” negotiations (i.e., where every negotiating movement is a gain for one side and a loss for the other) [see Fn. 2]—studies of “integrative” negotiations (i.e., achieving win-win deal) may produce a different conclusion.
  7. “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is an ages-old proverb because it is generally true—distributive negotiations may be one of its variations or exceptions.   


In the “distributive” negotiations context, a “tough and firm” posture produces better results than being “warm and friendly”—and it does so without negative social costs.

But there are limitations.  And an ability to perceive the boundaries of those limitations is important in being an effective and relatable person in other contexts.


Footnote 1.  The report of these four studies is, “Communicating with Warmth in Distributive Negotiations is Surprisingly Counterproductive,” by Martha Jeong, Julia Minson, Michael Yeomans and Francesca Gino, and published at Vol. 65, No. 12 Management Science 5449-5956 (2019).

Footnote 2.  “Distributive bargaining” is defined as, “a competitive bargaining strategy in which one party gains only if the other party loses something” at this webpage.  It contrasts with “integrative bargaining,” which is defined as, “a negotiation strategy in which parties collaborate to find a ‘win-win’ solution to their dispute,” at this webpage.

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