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How Food Improves Negotiations

Forge better business bonds through shared meals.
How food improves negotiations
image by Eric Kulin and Todd Detwiler

A typical Astoria, Queens, Deli and Caterer

Most Common Mistakes Customers Make

1. "They don’t give us enough time. This limits them to what we currently have in-house."

2. "They under order. They don’t tell us the true number of people they are going to have. Don’t say you have 20 people when you have 30, just to trim the budget.”

There’s now research supporting what you’ve always known in your gut: You make the best deals over shared meals.

That research, reported in Inc. by Jessica Stillman (@EntryLevelRebel), was conducted by Lakshmi Balachandra, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College. (Balachandra detailed her study on the HBR Blog Network.) To anyone whose mood has ever improved after a meal, Balachandra’s findings are eminently believable.

Here’s the science behind them: “When the negotiators in my first two studies ate, they immediately increased their glucose levels,” she writes. “Research has shown that the consumption of glucose enhances complex brain activities, bolstering self-control and regulating prejudice and aggressive behaviors.”

OK, but is there more to it than that? Not long ago in Inc., entrepreneur Kevin Daum (@awesomeROAR) suggested two more reasons that restaurants may provide an ideal setting for negotiations:

1. You Control the Environment.
“Their office is their territory: Their colleagues may interrupt you, or they may be distracted by calls or emails. Even if they agree to come to your office, you don’t want any distractions there, either. Besides, being in your territory may prompt them to put up their guard. You want them at ease. You want the environment to work for you. You can control the entire atmosphere at lunch.”

2. You Get Captive Time.
“In a typical meeting, the business agenda controls the time frame. If you only have 20 minutes of substantive discussion, you will find yourself dismissed once you make your point. Lunch is different. Eating is an expected social experience, and few people schedule a lunch for less than 60 to 90 minutes. Leave the laptop at home. A paper presentation works best at the table, and your prospect can take it home. Once you are done with a brief description, move on unless the prospect wants to delve further. Unless you offend, you will both be there for the whole meal, so use the extra time to connect socially. People do business with people they like. Now you have the time to help them like you.”



Back in 2006, Balachandra cowrote the article “What Negotiators Can Learn from Improv Comedy,” which appeared in the Harvard Law School publication Negotiation. Here’s a snippet: “In both improv and negotiation, confidence often comes from having fallback routines. Improv performers buy time by resorting to ‘physical business’ — pouring an imaginary glass of beer, for example. Seasoned negotiators use similar gambits to slow down the clock and get their bearings.”

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