If you want your next business deal to go your way, serve your guests a warm cup of coffee and offer clients a comfortable chair. Chances are they’ll warm up to you and be more generous.

In her new book “Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence,” psychologist Thalma Lobel says the texture and temperature of things we touch are capable of influencing our behavior. This is because of “embodied cognition,” a thesis that holds that the mind is influenced by what the body feels, sees and smells. Here’s how it works:

A 2008 study by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John A. Bargh of Yale University demonstrated how a hot beverage can cause others to view us more favorably. Participants were invited to attend a research lab and answer a standard questionnaire, but prior to entering the lab, they were met by an assistant who was holding either a warm cup of coffee or a cold beverage. The assistant, who had her hands full, asked the participants to hold the cup while she wrote down their names on a clipboard. Half the participants held a hot cup of coffee while the other half held a cold drink. The participants were then escorted to the research lab and were asked to rate a stranger’s personality based on various characteristics – generous, warm, good-natured, etc. Those who had held the warm coffee judged the individual as having a warmer personality than those who had held a cold beverage.

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“Just touching the warm object influenced their judgment,” says Lobel, showing how serving up a steaming cup of joe can make others regard you more fondly.

In another experiment by Williams and Bargh, participants were told they were going to review a new product – a therapeutic pad. Half the participants were given hot pads while the other half were given cold pads, but the discussion about the therapeutic pads wasn’t the experiment. The real experiment happened when researchers informed the participants they would be receiving a reward for being part of the study. But there was a catch: participants could enjoy the reward themselves or opt for a gift certificate for a friend. While only 25 percent of the participants who held a cold pad chose the gift for a friend, 50 percent of those who held a hot pad did, showing that temperature can influence whether dealmakers are more generous or tow a hard line at the negotiation table.

What these studies show us, Lobel says, can be critical to swinging the pendulum your way in a negotiation. “[Serving a warm beverage] will give them more trust in you, they will be warmer people and softer negotiators,” she says.

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Other elements of touch can also be applied to tip the tables in your favor as well. In another study by the same researchers, it was discovered that a softer chair makes us softer negotiators. Researchers asked participants to haggle over the price of a new car. All of the first offers were rejected and they were asked to make second offers. Those sitting in hard, wooden chairs raised their offers by only $900, while those in softer, cushioned chairs upped their offer by more than $1,200, leading researchers to conclude that the rigidity of the chair influenced participants to take a hard line in negotiations. Next time you’re at the bargaining table, it may be to your advantage to sit on a hard chair and offer your partner a soft chair.

A smooth table can also be to your benefit. When participants were asked to solve a puzzle using rough jigsaw puzzle pieces and simultaneously judge an interaction between two people, they described the interaction as more competitive and adversarial while than those who handled smooth puzzle pieces

So the next time you find yourself at the negotiation table, serve up a hot cup of coffee, offer a soft chair and ditch the knotty wooden boardroom table.  

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