Sitting down to a meal to talk business, like drinking while negotiating, is common practice around the world. There is probably not a single executive or public official who has never negotiated over a meal.
Eating together is a way for people to spend time together in an environment where they can actually pay attention to one another; it can improve social bonding within groups. When people in a business negotiation share not just a meal but a plate, they collaborate better and reach deals faster, according to new research.
Because this form of dining requires participants to coordinate their physical actions and consider the other person’s needs while collecting their own food, it ends up extending that same cooperation into business negotiations, making people behave less competitively toward each other than they do when eating the same food from separate plates.
As Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago report in Psychological Science, a meal taken “family-style” from a central platter can greatly improve the outcome of subsequent negotiations.
The pairs then had to negotiate a solution to a labor dispute; if they didn’t settle the dispute in time, a strike would be called, making subsequent rounds increasingly costly.
To find out, they asked study participants, all strangers to one another, to pair off in an experiment that involved negotiating. The participants were invited to have a snack of chips and salsa with their partners. Half of the pairs received one bowl of chips and one bowl of salsa to share, while the others each had their own bowls.
The teams who shared a bowl of chips and salsa reached a deal in nine rounds, on average, while those who had their own dishes took four rounds longer. If each round represented a day of negotiating, the teams who didn’t share food would have cost the company an extra $1.5 million in losses.
When Woolley and Fishbach repeated the experiment with both friends and strangers participating, friends arrived at a negotiation agreement faster than strangers, but sharing plates had a significant effect for both groups. The degree to which a person felt she was collaborating with her partner while eating, sharing food rather than competing for that last bite, predicted her feelings of collaboration during the negotiation phase.
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