Negotiating with Kids

by Suzita on March 3, 2011

My sister’s favorite class at business school was a negotiation course taught by a guy named Stuart Diamond.  She said one of the lessons she gleaned from his class was never to give up on a negotiation.  There’s always a creative way to solve a thorny problem.

When my sister learned Diamond had written up his popular class into a book, she sent me a copy.  Thanks Heather!  The book is called Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World.  The 12 Invisible Strategies That Change Everything You Thought You Knew About Negotiation.

This book has a chapter devoted to kids and parents, which fits his general model for negotiation into the seemingly constant dealmaking we parents engage in with our progeny.  But I recommend perusing the entire book because there are gems throughout that might otherwise be missed.

As the parent of an adolescent, here’s the nugget I found most valuable:  include intangibles and items of unequal value into your negotiations.  Diamond even recommends that you are honest and transparent with your child about doing this.

He writes, “All parties value things differently and often unequally.  Once you find out what they are, you can trade them.  In the process you will get what you consider valuable things for yourself.  In exchange, you can give up things that have relatively little value to you.”

At about this point in my initial reading, I desperately needed an example. Never fear, Diamond’s book offers an abundance of real-life examples, with actual names of people and places included!  We psychotherapists think this is particularly cool because we always have to change names and identifying information when writing up our work.

“Debbie Simoncini-Rosenfeld, vice president of an insurance company, was trying to deal with her eight year-old daughter, Jessica, ‘screaming and yelling’ to stay up later than her 8:30 bedtime.  Her daughter wanted to read later at night.  So Debbie traded her daughter a 9:30 bedtime in exchange for no bare-belly shirts at school and no riding her bike in the street.  Debbie valued her daughter’s decorum and safety more than a later bedtime; her daughter valued a later bedtime more than decorum and safety.” Both parties were quite satisfied with this deal in the end.

Reading this passage was a breath of fresh air for me!  I haven’t battled over this particular issue at my house, but it is so similar to many of our ongoing “negotiations.”  The Debbie and Jessica scenario reminded me to think imaginatively about solutions, and that both people can win in a negotiation.  In fact the goal is for both parties to come away feeling they got something.

Diamond encourages parents to teach their older children about these negotiation strategies because, when two people think innovatively about intangibles that might be traded, a solution is generated more quickly.

He also reminds readers to stand in the shoes of the other person at the beginning of each negotiation.  Try to suss out the “picture in the other person’s head” in order to better understand what they truly want (which may not be exactly what they are requesting).

This suggestion is, of course, completely obvious when read here in black and white.  But do you do it regularly?

I like to think I do, but truthfully I’ve got maybe a 50% rate of other person’s shoe wearing.  Maybe that’s why they call it standing in someone else’s shoes.  The image captures the full sense of this act, which for adults at least, isn’t something wholly appealing.  “I’ll wear my own shoes thanks.”  Kids, on the other hand, literally do this all the time from about ages 1 to 5.

Diamond also recommends that we parents regularly play “role reversal” with our kids.  When parents and children play out a problem scenario with reversed roles, it allows each to better understand the other’s position.  Plus kids love playing the parent!

I wish I had a tidy little scenario of how we’ve used these negotiation techniques at my house, but at the moment I don’t.  I only finished the book yesterday.

The closest I can come is our family chore-assigning meetings.  At these times, I remind the kids that we each have a chore which for whatever (usually somewhat irrational) reason, we can’t stand.  Then I tell them that they don’t have to pick that one as their job, because chances are someone else isn’t as annoyed by it.  This technique has been a useful way to add some choice into chore selection, and seems to help the kids feel less put-upon.  Otherwise, in our family, doing chores is a “non-negotiable item.”

Here’s one final highlight.  Diamond discusses the importance of brainstorming ideas during negotiating, saying that “even an ill-formed idea can spark a great idea in someone else.”  He writes that a British study in 2006 titled “Why Bad Ideas Are a Good Idea” found empirical evidence that bad ideas prompt creative processes which then produce good ideas.  From here the authors went on to suggest, “Bad is the new good.”

I love that quote.  I think I will use it in my family next time I come out with a really bad idea, one I should have kept inside my head to stew a bit longer.  But it’s all okay because, bad is the new good.  Such a freeing concept!

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