The practice of using alcohol to grease the wheels has a long and storied role in famous negotiations. In recent decades, shared drinks during adversarial bargaining helped lead to breakthroughs in conflicts in Serbia and Northern Ireland, for example.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton plans to follow in this tradition in value-creation negotiations with congressional Republicans if she wins the election in November.
Clinton hopes to improve on the negotiation skills of President Barack Obama when it comes to building bridges with GOP members. Obama, who maintains a private family life at the White House, has failed to achieve value creation with Republicans on key issues ranging from immigration to gun control.
By contrast, according to the New York Times, which spoke to a dozen of Clinton’s campaign advisers and allies, Clinton would “bring back the intimate style of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson, negotiating over adult beverages.” To break through partisan gridlock, Clinton would patiently work on getting to yes with Republicans by visiting them on Capitol Hill in addition to inviting them over to the White House to schmooze over drinks.
Drinks—and drinking contests?
Clinton’s first priorities upon taking office would be to try to negotiate deals with Republicans on immigration overhaul and infrastructure spending.
And Clinton allies and advisers repeatedly told the Times that she planned to do so by drawing on her “ability to use alcohol as a political lubricant.” Clinton believes “a relaxed, frank discussion is more authentic than trying to bond awkwardly with adversaries over sports,” according to the Times, in addition to being more productive than the arm’s-length approach that President Barack Obama has often adopted.
Clinton hasn’t been shy about her willingness to share drinks with her political adversaries. In a video posted to her Facebook page in 2015, Clinton was asked whether she had ever engaged in a drinking contest. She responded by laughing about being challenged to one by Republican senator John McCain when they were on a congressional delegation.
“We have our political differences, but we sat there drinking vodka,” she said. “We both, I think, agreed to withdraw in honorable fashion, I think after having reached the limits that either of us should have had.”
“She likes to cajole, she likes to make deals, and she likes to make friends,” Richard Socarides, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, told the Times. “And she knows it’s much harder to go after someone who you basically like, who you’ve had a drink with.”
The rewards of drinking during negotiation . . .
Is Hillary Clinton’s intuition and personal experience—that a friendly drink (or two or more) builds rapport—correct? To a degree, yes, write Columbia Business School professor Adam D. Galinsky and Wharton School professor Maurice E. Schweitzer in a 2007 Negotiation Briefings article entitled “Negotiators: Think Before You Drink.” But drinking while negotiating also has clear risks, the authors say (see also, Overcoming Cultural Barriers in International Negotiations).
When consumed in moderation, alcohol can put people at ease, build rapport, and put them in the right frame of mind to engage in value creation. “When negotiators become impaired together, they become more vulnerable, and their mutual dependence increases,” write Galinsky and Schweitzer. Negotiators who drink together often open up with and let down their guard, building trust and improving their relationship in the process.
. . . and the risks
At the same time, alcohol can have unpredictable and unwanted effects. By making social behavior more extreme, drinking can lead some people to become more aggressive, a quality that can inspire competitive behavior in negotiation.
And critically, note Galinsky and Schweitzer, alcohol impairs cognition and negotiation skills. When negotiating under the influence, individuals will become less capable of considering the other party’s perspective. Alcohol also hinders abstract thinking, information processing, and the ability to build complex arguments. When inebriated, people rely on cognitive shortcuts to resolve differences, and they make inefficient tradeoffs. Alcohol consumption can lead to confusion, contradictory thoughts, and errors. To make matters worse, alcohol makes us overconfident in our abilities.
Finally, a negotiator who suggests meeting over a drink risks offending a counterpart who doesn’t drink or doesn’t want to drink, whether for moral, religious, health, professional, or other reasons. So, before suggesting a drink, try to find out whether doing so would be appropriate or not (see also, Solutions for Avoiding Intercultural Barriers at the Bargaining Table).
The bottom line on bottoms up
If, after weighing these pros and cons, you decide, like Clinton, that a friendly drink or two with a negotiating partner is likely to do more good than harm, how can you realize the rapport-building benefits without sacrificing your negotiation skills (for more information, see also Rapport Comes First)?
Galinsky and Schweitzer advise us to separate the relationship-building stage of the negotiation process from the bargaining stage. That is, you might meet your counterpart for a friendly drink in the evening before substantive talks begin the next day. Over drinks, be sure to limit your talk to getting-to-know-you topics and avoid talking about the issues at stake in your negotiation. In addition, be sure to temper the inebriating and potentially harmful health effects of alcohol by serving it with food and water.