ADR professionals and experienced negotiators know that food can play an important role in building rapport, establishing connection, and fostering trust between adversaries. Food is ubiquitous at family gatherings, in religious ceremonies, and at diplomatic meetings for good reason. But how can food figure in our negotiations, arbitrations, and mediations?
As Barry Goldman observes in The Science of Settlement: “Food is good. . . . . [A}s a consequence, things associated with food are also perceived as good. Things that happen to me while I am eating, including propositions that are introduced to me while I am eating, are perceived as better than those same things or propositions introduced when I am not eating. There is a reason why rug salesmen serve tea and copier salesmen take customers to lunch.”
Recent research in consumer behavior confirms the persuasive power of food. And what may be most persuasive is not just sharing food, but sharing the same kind of food. Daniel Akst of The Wall Street Journal some time ago reported on research conducted by Kaitlin Wooley and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago. They published their findings in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Wooley and Fishbach conducted a series of experiments and found that people are more likely to negotiate an agreement and trust their adversary with money when they see them eating the same thing.
One experiment placed volunteers in a simulated investment game as either investors or fund managers. Investors were given a sum of money to place with a fund manager and told that it would automatically double but that the fund manager was free to return some, none, or all of the proceeds. Investors and managers sat together and ate candy selected by the researchers. Investors entrusted more money to managers with whom they ate the same candy than did those investors who did not eat the same kind of candy as their managers.
Another experiment involved simulated labor negotiations pairing management and labor representatives. A number of wage bids were allowed before a strike would be called. Each negotiating pair was given the same type of snack or contrasting types of snacks (salty vs. sugary, for example). Those negotiating pairs who ate the same snack reached agreement almost twice as fast as those who did not.
A third experiment featured a person trying to sell a product while eating a candy bar, another type of food, or sometimes nothing at all. Volunteers given the same candy bar as the salesman tended to trust the salesman and the message more than those volunteers given a different food from the salesman.
In the final experiment, the researchers showed volunteers pairs of photos with people eating food. The volunteers trusted those pairs eating the same food more that they did the pairs who ate different food.
This research suggests you may build trust and connection in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration by doing more than just sharing food with your adversary if you have or take the opportunity to do so. Eating the same or very similar foods as your adversary, or even limiting menu choices so you are eating close to the same things, may help you go further in establishing the rapport essential to an agreement. Mediators should add the role of host to the many other roles they play. Consider bringing breakfast to your sessions and supervising the ordering of lunch to help keep adversaries in a collaborative mood.
Haute cuisine will not resolve every conflict to be sure. Food is no substitute in negotiation and dispute resolution for preparation, a clear goal, and a sound concession strategy. But neither should you ignore the potential role of food altogether. Keeping negotiators well-fueled at least helps to maintain blood sugar levels and may stave off the weariness and crankiness that leads to mistakes. At most, taking the research of Wooley and Fishbach seriously may provide you with an edge you might not otherwise have. Sometimes saying “I’ll have what she’s having” means you will not only share a meal, you may also cut a deal.