When you sit down for a difficult negotiation — asking for a raise, hiring an employee, or haggling for a loan — make sure there’s some guacamole beside you.
That’s because when people eat during competitive negotiations, they find better deals, according to a forthcoming study from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
“When you have a competitive negotiation, the added presence of food makes folks uncertain about how to behave,” Stanford professor Margaret Neale says. “It’s that juxtaposition of that social ritual, which is cooperative, and the negotiation, which is competitive. That disconnect gets people to pay more attention to each other.”
In a series of experiments, Neale and doctoral student Peter Belmi asked participants to negotiate while eating. In one, it was chips and salsa; in another, apple slices and caramel sauce. In some cases negotiators ate from the same bowl, while in others each person had his or her own plate. The result: Better deals came when people ate from the same bowl.
“It is the shared-ness of the food that’s important,” Neale explains.
Yet sharing just anything doesn’t produce the same results. In another study, Neale and Belmi asked participants to share a calculator for their negotiations. It had none of the same cooperation-inducing effects as the food. She says this is because whenever we share food with someone, there’s a social overlay of cooperation.
After all, we share most of our food with family and friends, people that we’re close with and care about.
“It’s the inconsistency between the competitive negotiation and the cooperative nature of sharing food that makes the difference,” Neale says. “The lesson here is that you’re really trying to generate a sense of uncertainty. That helps you pay closer attention to your counterpart, and that, in turn, allows you to find ways to create more value.”
There’s a clear takeaway for business here: If you don’t want to leave money on the table, try negotiating over a meal.
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