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Close the Deal, Share a Meal

shutterstock_134082242New research confirms what you might feel in your gut: eating together is one of the best ways to form  relationships and get deals done.

To hone in on that hunch, Babson College professor Lakshmi Balachandra ran a clever experiment: she had 132 MBA students negotiate a complex joint venture agreement between two companies, knowing that, to maximize profits, the companies would have to work together. She divided them into three groups: one held their negotiation at a restaurant, another had food brought into a corporate conference room, and the last group negotiated without anything to eat.

What happened? The eaters did much better, with the ordered-in group gaining 11% and the restaurant-goers creating 12% greater profits over the group that didn’t dine at all. To Balachandra, this shows that eating while deciding has measurable benefits. “You go in knowing what you want out of a deal,” she says. “But we spend very little time thinking about the other side or what they may want out of a situation.”

This reduces the effectiveness of our dealmaking, Balachandra says, since the key to most any negotiation, whether its closing a sale or simply having a touch conversation, is to learn what the other side wants to have happen.

“Once you find that information,” she says, “that’s how you can make trades.”

Similar to what Daniel Pink talks about in To Sell Is Human, you’re trying to find out what it is they want and show them how you can provide it. And while we implicitly understand that eating helps with the process, we’re only starting to get a grasp of what’s doing when you’re doing lunch.

What is it about eating?

Humans have been dining together for quite a while now. Emerging research argues that cooking is what allowed us to outpace our great ape neighbors, and the link between eating and bonding is in our everyday language–companion is Latin for someone you break bread with. When we eat together, it’s like we’re tapping into that tradition.

“Perhaps when you’re in this (different) environment, it forces you to interact in a different way,” Balachandra say. “We’re not really conscious of it, but the environment influences the way we behave.”

It’s same reason for why, back when she was in business, Balachandra took golf lessons: she knew conferences didn’t just happen in conference rooms–they happen on the links and at the dinner table.

It’s unclear why eating helps us become better negotiators, though Balachandra has several hypotheses. It could be that eating restores glucose, often associated with self control. It could be that in dining we mirror each other’s actions, which bonds us. It could be that something hormonal is happening to encourage our collaboration. Or it could be that having our mouths full keeps us from talking quite so fast. Until Balachandra figures that out, savor these tips and observations:

  • Creating the most value comes from seeing the other side. As Balachandra’s experiment suggests, the most effective deals get done when people are working together. Never forget that your sell is a collaboration between you and the buyer–and make sure the buyer knows that, too.
  • Groups that eat together are more collaborative. There are a number of possible reasons for why eating together makes us work better together. That collaboration produces results.
  • If you want to make a deal happen, eat together. The whole table will be more relaxed and thus more open to sharing interests. Once you know what their goals are, you can demonstrate how you can help.