Science of Success

New research finds that this family habit can help you negotiate more effectively

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Need help closing a complicated business deal? Try sharing a meal.

But not just the meal — the actual plate. While many of us try to bond or broker trust with others over a shared meal, we may be limiting the gesture's utility by ordering and being served our own individual dinners.

New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that our eating style has an influence on cooperation, and that "family-style" dining, in which diners divvy up portions from shared dishes, promotes better collaboration and faster-deal making.

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.

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"American business people sometimes complain about having to waste time over business meals. I can understand that. You spend all that time at work already, it seems like extra steps and people want to just cut to the chase," Ayelet Fishbach, co-author of the research and a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, tells CNBC Make It. "But this research reminds people that they might not realize all they get out of eating with other people. It can facilitate your ability to work together on problems."

While the kind of meal you share may seem trivial compared to the terms of the business agreement. Fishbach and her fellow researcher Kaitlin Woolley found it can have a big impact on the length of the negotiation period and a company's bottom line.

The researchers paired strangers off in one of the study's experiments and gave half of the groups a shared bowl of chips and salsa while the rest ate from their own individual bowls before beginning a simulated labor negotiation. One person in each pair played the role of management while the other acted as a union representative. Their goal was to set a new wage and end a strike costly to both sides.

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.

Eating together from shared plates made people more cooperative without affecting how one person felt about the other.

"It makes sense to use this strategy to facilitate thinking about the other side's perspective to better understand and work with them," says Fischbach, who also adds that sharing plates will be most beneficial to those in ongoing relationships with their negotiation counterparts. (Those engaging in a one-time transactional-type deal, like a car purchase, needn't bother.)

What surprised Fishbach and Woolley about these results was that eating together from shared plates made people more cooperative without affecting how one person felt about the other.

"Usually when people are eating the same food, it signals I am like you. It makes people feel closer to each other. We thought food makes friends, but we didn't find that. Sharing plates didn't make people feel any closer," says Fishbach.

Not all communal meals are equal, though. There is a "Goldilocks amount" (too much, too little, just right) that leads to the best negotiation results. When communal dishes are extremely large or constantly refilled, say at a buffet, the need to consider another person's hunger or divvy food evenly goes away, meaning so does the cooperation. The same affect happens when a clear portion is divided, such as eating a single slice of cake.

Conversely, very small portions that will not feed all people present satisfactorily can also backfire by increasing competitiveness.

"You need to make sure that the kind of meal you share requires you to see how much people want to eat and watch how others respond to your movements," says Fishbach. "If you don't need to look at their plates, you won't need to cooperate."

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