Author: Stephen P. Lagoy
Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that food occupies a fairly prominent position in my life. Even if you don’t know me, one look at my photograph ought to tell you that. For me (and I suspect the majority of people), food is not just sustenance. Food helps us celebrate the good times and helps console us when things aren’t going so well. Food brings families together to share special holidays and life’s milestones. Food follows the baptism of our infants, the bar mitzvahs of our adolescents, and the weddings of our young couples. Food is also an important part of the process by which we say farewell to our deceased loved ones. Of course, it’s more than just the food. It’s the sitting down at the same table and breaking bread together. It’s the sharing of a very pleasant, visceral experience with others. It’s the letting go of life’s stresses when we hear the words “Let’s eat”!
So I guess that it should come as no surprise that food has found its way into my mediations as a means of bringing parties together. I trace this notion to an ADR conference that I attended some years back. During a workshop session, one of the attendees, a mediator, described how a party in a particularly acrimonious dispute had volunteered to deliver a tray of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to the conference room where the opposing party was holed up. The mediator expected that the cookies would simply be delivered and the disputant would return. Instead, the cookie-deliverer was invited into the conference room, the door closed, and some hours later, the parties emerged having resolved their dispute. The mediator attributed the parties’ resolution in no small part to the appearance of the chocolate chip cookies. This got me thinking. If a tray of warm cookies could help turn parties around, maybe it would make sense to build communal meals into my mediation process. Not wanting to be accused of using any excuse to sit down to a good meal, I looked for scientific support for the notion that dining together might make disputants more conciliatory.
What I found was research on a hormone known as oxytocin, a chemical messenger which some research suggested was the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust in our dealings with others. Known primarily as a female reproductive hormone, oxytocin controls contractions during labor. Doctors inject the synthetic version of the hormone, Pitocin, in expectant mothers to induce delivery. Outside the delivery room, researchers found that, as oxytocin levels were increased in test subjects, they tended to become more generous and conciliatory. There are a number of activities that tend to increase oxytocin levels. Some would not be ideal in the mediation context – sexual intercourse, childbirth and breast feeding, for example. However, there is one oxytocin-increasing activity that’s perfectly appropriate for mediations: eating, particularly with others. As stated by oxytocin expert Dr. Joseph Verbalis at Georgetown University, “studies in animals and people show that oxytocin rises during the most ordinary activity: when we eat. Moreover, when we share a meal with others – feeding and bonding at the same time – perhaps still more oxytocin floods our brains, creating the fraternity of the table.” Fraternity of the table. I like that.
So that is how it came to be that the great majority of mediations I conduct have food as an important component. We don’t break for lunch. Rather, lunch is provided and is served in plenary session. During the meal, participants are encouraged to discuss anything, other than the dispute that brought them there. And the topics of conversation range from their kids, to sports teams, to music, to travel…you name it. Feeding and bonding at the same time. I don’t mean to suggest that food is the universal antidote to discord. But my experience leads me to believe that “the fraternity of the table” can be helpful in helping parties get to “yes.”