This article is written by S. Camille Milner, a Denton-based collaborative lawyer and the current Vice-President of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas’ board.
Early on, when we started our collaborative law work, I decided, or someone recommended, somewhere along the way, that having snacks at the meetings might be helpful. In presentations, I always emphasized the importance of that, to the point that I think some colleagues thought I was just silly.
I often say in trainings that whether it is a primal or Biblical thing, when we humans break bread together, the barriers seem to go down, and we begin to communicate more effectively. I actually saw this unfold in my early collaborative cases. Back then, we would have snacks on a table away from our conference table. At first, no one would eat anything, but eventually someone would get up and go pick up just a piece of fruit or a cookie, then sit back down, but as the meeting went on and everyone began to loosen up, people would begin to go over to the table and get more food. As the clients began to eat, I noticed a physical change in their faces and their other body language, and inevitably the negotiations began to be more productive.
Through trial and error, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work so well with regard to snacks. I learned that finger foods, or cut up fruit, for example, are easier to handle than whole apples or bananas. Platters placed in the middle of the conference table, rather than off to the side, emphasizes family style eating, which subconsciously reminds us of fond memories and promotes relationship. David Bouschor, one of our Denton collaborative attorneys, offers to refill everyone’s coffee cup, which subtly softens the distance between the professionals and the participants and further strengthens the team relationship.
As time went on, I decided that it was important to solicit from the team members and the clients what their dietary restrictions or preferences were, because the whole point of the snacks is to make everyone at the table feel comfortable. I have had one attorney who was on the Atkins diet and asked that I have nothing but cheese and meat so that she wouldn’t be tempted. I have had groups that included vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, nutritarians (a term phrased by Dr. Joel Fuhrman), anti-caffeine, pro-caffeine. Food allergies also must be weighed in: I remember the parents of a child so allergic to nuts that they asked that we never have nuts on the table, so they can avoid accidentally getting residue on their hands and unknowingly exposing their child to it.
Why do we pay so much attention to this? Because, as Pauline Tesler, the well-known collaborative lawyer from California says, “Everything matters.” So if we have control over something that could make a positive difference, when we have so little control over so many things in the case, I say, let’s take every opportunity to capitalize on that opportunity.
Recently, I ran across this article from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation — which echoes many of the thoughts I’ve developed over the years about food and how it contributes to a non-adversarial process. After feeling like I was making way too much out of this food thing, it is nice to see that there is actually some science to back what many thought was just my apparent desire to be a good southern hostess!