How a cup of tea can improve your negotiations

Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the way someone is feeling toward us before a negotiation, without them even knowing that we’re doing anything? It turns out that there is something we can do, and it could be as simple as offering a cup of tea.

It may sound like an old fashioned way of solving problems. You’ve lost your job – tell me all about it over a cup of tea. You’ve had a big argument with your business partner – let’s sit down and discuss it over a cup of tea.

While this might just seem like the kind of thing your mum would suggest to make things better, there’s research to back up why that cup of tea (or any other hot drink) may well make a positive impact in your negotiations.

Negotiation and the importance of relationship

A key element of each and every negotiation is relationship.  In fact, in our workshops, participants often comment that the biggest challenges they face are in managing the relationships with other parties in the negotiation.

The quality of the relationship is determined by the assumptions and perceptions we hold about each other.  These fundamentally impact the way we approach a negotiation.  If the other person is feeling hostile towards us, the result of the negotiation will be quite different to if they are feeling more positively towards us.

When we find someone to be a “warm” person rather than a “cold” person, we are more likely to have favourable perceptions of them.  Psychological warmth is associated with traits such as trustworthiness, friendliness and helpfulness.

So, what can we do to improve the way someone is feeling towards us.

The neuroscience behind warmth and negotiation

puppet stringsResearchers from the University of Colorado and Yale University conducted two studies which demonstrated that it is possible to change a person’s impressions and their behaviour, without them being aware of any external influences.

To understand these studies, it is important to know that neuroscientists have discovered that the part of our brain that is involved in processing physical sensations of warmth, is also responsible for processing psychological warmth.

In the first study, participants were primed by being given either a cup of hot coffee or a cup of iced coffee to hold.  They were then given a description of a person.  Based solely on the information provided, participants had to rate the person on a number of personality traits.

The researchers found that when participants were primed with a warm drink, they rated the person significantly higher in traits relating to warmth.  For traits not relating to warmth there was no difference in ratings between the groups primed with hot or cold coffee.  Holding the warm drink influenced participants’ subsequent interpersonal judgments.

In the second experiment, participants were primed with either a warm or cold therapeutic cushion.  They were then given two options:

  • get a bottled drink for yourself and a $1 voucher for a friend; or
  • get a bottled drink for a friend and a $1 voucher for yourself.

The results showed that the temperature priming impacted on how likely participants were to choose a gift for themselves rather than a friend.  Twenty five percent of those primed with a cold cushion selected the gift for a friend compared with 54 percent of those primed with the warm cushion.

Put the kettle on for your next negotiation

boiling kettleSo, while we wouldn’t recommend relying solely on this phenomenon as a strategy for your next negotiation, it does seem like a good idea so somehow prime your counterpart with a sense of physical warmth.  So before your next negotiation, make sure you offer your negotiation counterpart a nice warm cup of tea!


Download our free Harvard-based negotiation planner here to get started.  To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.” 


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