Choosing the Right Environment for Negotiations

How much thought do you put into creating the right atmosphere for a negotiation? The Public Speaker explains how the best choices can have a psychological and emotional impact.  

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #260

Did you know that athletes run faster in peppermint-scented rooms? Or that sports teams wearing black are penalized more? Or that business cards printed on heavier paper stock are taken more seriously than those printed on lighter paper?;

Recently on my Smart Talk podcast, I interviewed Thalma Lobel, an internationally recognized psychologist and a professor at the School of Psychological Science at Tel Aviv University. Lobel is also the author of, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence.

Her book talks about the surprising (and at times, somewhat unbelievable) impact of outside environmental elements--tactile sensation, smell, color, and temperature--on our language, our ability to understand abstract concepts, and our judgments. 

I was particularly interested in her discussion of how environment impacts negotiations, so I asked her to describe the ideal setting for negotiation/persuading.

The Hot Drink Trick

You many find Lobel's first suggestion a bit odd: She said that if you want the upper hand in a negotiation, make sure that your opponent is given a warm beverage. The purpose of the drink is not to fulfill etiquette, but to help make your opponent more malleable to suggestions.

When I raised my eyebrows in disbelief, she described a credible study that supported her suggestion. In the study, the researchers asked participants to temporarily hold either a hot or iced cup of coffee. At this point, the participants were unaware that the study had started. Next, they were asked to rate somebody’s personality based on a snippet of information. The group that held the hot cup gave a much higher rating of "warmth" than the people holding the iced coffee. 

It turns out that this research, along with other studies, shows that holding a warm object leads to more generous behaviors. It made me think of all those times my husband, Armando, offered me a hot cup of tea just before trying to persuade me--it seems he intuitively understood this effect! Or, wait…maybe he already knew about this research…

So, what’s my advice? Never hold something hot while you are negotiating!

Smooth Operator

Another suggestion Dr. Lobel had was to ensure that your opponent had something smooth to touch--a smooth table top surface, or something soft. Why? Because research suggests that touching smooth, soft objects helps to "smooth" communication.

The research suggests that at a young age, we begin to associate smooth objects with comfort--whether that's the skin of your parent or the fluffy fur of a stuffed bear. Hard surfaces, on the other hand, are equated with negative experiences, like the hard surface of the doctor's table.

In negotiations, it seems that the softest surface you could provide would be a cushioned chair or sofa. Keep in mind that, ideally, it's your opponent who should sit in the softest place!


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.