Breaking bread: could sharing food foster cooperation between parties in mediation?

Breaking bread in a mediationI couldn’t resist the following headline from today’s Orlando Sentinel: Could barbecue succeed where mediation fails?

According to the story that followed, mediation has unfortunately been unsuccessful in a long-standing dispute between Volusia County, Florida, and the City of Deltona over Deltona’s intended annexation of 5000 acres of land. Therefore, in a moment of civic inspiration and Southern hospitality, a resident of Deltona has invited municipal and county officials over to his place to sit down and work out their differences over a plate of barbecued ribs.

My thought is—hey, why not do both? Mediate and eat barbecue? After all, if collaborative law, which envisions the use of a team of attorneys and other professionals, including financial planners and therapists, to help disputing parties resolve differences cooperatively, why not apply the same team-based approach to mediation–pairing mediators with barbecue pitmasters to break down barriers to agreement and foster collaboration?

All kidding aside, quite a few mediators I know make a point of feeding their clients, not only because providing coffee and pastry is a nice thing to do, but for other reasons as well. Consider that the act of breaking bread with another human being is deeply symbolic, a reminder of the link between each person at table. (Note that the English word “companion” is derived from the Latin words for “together” and “bread”, signifying “the one with whom I share bread”.) There’s anecdotal evidence to suggest there might be something to this: a friend of mine, a community mediator who works primarily with families with teenagers and who often bakes brownies and cookies for her mediation sessions, insists that there’s something about the aroma of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies that puts everyone in a much more collaborative frame of mind–something which I can well believe.

Bon appetit. (And please pass the napkins.)

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