I’m inspired this week by some research done by Lakshmi Balachandra at Babson College in the USA into whether negotiating is best done over a meal.  It’s a question I get asked regularly on training courses, to which my instinctive reaction has always been “yes”, but until now I never really had any evidence to back up my hunch.

Business LunchMy theory has always been that if you can get people to relax and become less formal, you have a better chance of building Trust.  Once they start to open up, both parties can share more information, and as a result the more creative and collaborative Win/Win deals can be done.

I’ve also always thought that building rapport is a key part of negotiating, and again, sitting at a table together, sharing a meal, being courteous and attentive to each other (passing the butter without having to be asked, all that good manners stuff), can surely only add to an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Lakshmi’s research was done by having 132 MBA students carry out a negotiation simulation, some of them in an office environment without food, some with food, and some in a restaurant.  The people who did it over a meal achieved 12% greater mutual profitability than those without the food.

Interestingly (and counter to my theory about how it would increase Trust levels), the students reported no increase in Trust.  (How come?  If I know you are looking out for whether my glass needs refreshing during the meal, surely I trust you a bit more?).  So why would the negotiations be more collaborative?

Lakshmi thinks it may be because of the increase in glucose levels when people eat.  Research shows that glucose supports complex brain activities and helps regulate aggressive behaviour and prejudice.  (Note to self:  try and encourage them to leave room  for dessert!).  Also that when people eat they unconsciously mimick the behaviour of their fellow diner, and this may produce more of a sense of harmony amongst the players.

I would also guess that negotiating in neutral territory must help, where people are unable to take up entrenched positions and build power literally by where they sit in the room . If no one owns the “turf”, the atmosphere is probably less competitive.

There’s also the fact that mental movement is often generated by physical movement.  When negotiations get stuck, take your opponent for a walk, and you will often find your deadlock has been freed up.  So maybe travelling to the restaurant together creates mental movement, allowing for more creative mutual gain.

My final thought on this is the reciprocity thing (Robert Cialdini’s “Influence.  The Psychology of Persuasion” is excellent on this).  If I pay the bill (and who pays can be an awkward negotiation in itself, so I suggest you make the offer and get it agreed BEFORE you get to the restaurant), you will subconsciously feel obliged to reciprocate in some way.  That might well be in you making a concession in the negotiation itself.  It’s true: there really is no such thing as a free lunch!

It all adds up to the proposition that negotiating over a meal is a good idea.  If you’re like me, you kind of knew that, but this gives some more substance to the idea.

Please share any examples you have of where this has worked for you.

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