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Grumpiness And Sharing A Meal

by Phyllis Pollack
July 2012

  • PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

    Phyllis  Pollack

    During one of my early meditation training classes, the teacher suggested that we set out food in the conference rooms during the mediation for at least two reasons. The first is that it provides an indication of how anxious/nervous/relaxed is each party. People do not tend to reach for food when they are anxious/nervous; only after they have calmed down/relaxed a bit, do they allow themselves to take a Danish. The second and more important reason is to allow the parties to keep up their blood – sugar levels and fight off grumpiness. People make bad decisions when they are grumpy.

    A study published a while ago bears this out. In the April 14, 2011 edition of The Economist, the author reports on a study of decisions made by eight Israeli judges over a ten month period. The judges were ruling on applications made by prisoners to parole boards, and more specifically, on requests either to be allowed out on parole or to have the conditions of their imprisonment modified.

    What the researchers found were startling:

    ‘’… at the start of the day, the judges granted around two – thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply …, eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of the two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.” (Id.)

    While recidivism also played a role here, so did the blood-sugar level of the judge. It dropped with the number of cases the judge heard (rather than the amount of time on the bench since the last break.) Why? Because “… decision making is mentally taxing and… if forced to keep deciding things, people will get tired and start looking for easy answers .” (Id.) It is easy to say “no”!

    In fact, the researchers found evidence of the mental taxation; on average, it took the judge 5.2 minutes (i.e, 312 seconds) to say “no” and 7.4 minutes (ie., 440 seconds) to say “yes” while the favorable written rulings averaged 90 words and the negative ones averaged 47 words.

    More recently, the July 2, 2012 edition of The New York Times published an article entitled “Diplomacy Travels on Its Stomach, Too” by Marian Burros. The article highlights the use of food by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an important part of “smart diplomacy”. From her days as First Lady, Ms. Clinton learned that the food proffered to diplomats is just as important (if not more so) than the actual negotiations. As Ms. Clinton noted, “[s]howcasing favorite cusines, ceremonies and values is an often overlooked and powerful tool of diplomacy….The meals I share with my counterparts … cultivates a stronger cultural understanding between countries and offer a unique setting to enhance the formal diplomacy we conduct every day.” (Id.)

    The morale: Eat breakfast and continue to eat throughout the day and especially so, before you have to make decisions. Otherwise, grumpiness will set in and you may make a bad decision or one you’ll later regret! More importantly, share a meal with the other party; it will lead to a better negotiated outcome. There is something to be said for “breaking bread” with the “enemy.”

    …. Just something to think about!


    Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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