5 Key Skills Children Can Teach Us About Negotiation

Observe. Listen. Learn.

When I said “no” to my son for the first time he gave me a look I will never forget. He met an artificial limit for the first time in his life and it stunned, hurt and angered him. I was sure I was going to be the father that does not have to say no all the time because I work with communication psychology, learning methodology and creativity. And there I was breaking that promise to myself, and so soon.


Clearly something changed that moment when he looked at me with a mix of disbelief, lack of comprehension, and a mischievous readiness to find out more what it means to be told “no”. I had woken his negotiations spirit and while I thought I knew a lot about negotiating due to my work experience, I had no idea that I was in for a real ride. He would become one of my key teachers for how to negotiate simply and effectively.


As it turns out, my son is not the only child who knows how to negotiate, they all do. It is something we are born with and is clearly intended to ensure our survival from early on. When I started observing this, I realised that regardless whether it is a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, kindergarten or school teacher, or any other adult interacting with a child, we are constantly engaged in negotiations with them. I also realised that we hardly ever look upon this as a learning opportunity and miss out on a free offer to learn from the best.


#1: Focus on your goal and avoid assumptions


How often can you say no? Well, children will make you regularly break that record. The interesting thing is that for children this does not mean anything. They have set their mind on a goal and will go for it no matter what. They might have to compromise eventually, but that consideration does not cross their mind initially. They have a clear idea of what they want (to have) and they go for it. Have you ever seen a child really doubt if they want an ice-cream? I haven’t. Children focus on their own position and their own goals. They do not consider or assume what your interest and / or responses could be, so they set the tone with determination.


When negotiating, it is crucial not lose sight of your own goal and position. It is key not to adjust your position based on what your counterpart is thinking or might (not) want to achieve. This way, you set the tone whilst retaining strength and focus. The moment you make your considerations based on what the other side could potentially think about it and how they might respond you shift focus to assumptions.


#2: Learn and use the counterpart’s weakness


How come my children always want something when I am extremely stressed? Always. Well, the answer is simple; us adults are always busy with something. We have to juggle several balls with a seemingly never-ending list of things to do. Even though it is not always true, it definitely feels like that for me a lot of the time.


My son and other children come forward with their request initially because they do not get the attention they want, and later on simply because they have understood the exact time we are most likely to give in to their requests, which is when we are vulnerable as our focus is spread thin. They have accurately pinpointed our weakness and exploit the lack of attention in order to reach their goal.


In negotiations it is key to understand the other side’s vulnerabilities. Often this analysis is purely focused on the actual topic of negotiation, however, it is way more effective to study the other side as part of the context. This includes their behaviour, attention, stress level, pressure and other relevant elements in order to get a complete contextual understanding, thereby being able to realise when they are most likely to give in to your demands.


#3: Set the anchor, then let the other side do the bidding


“Daddy, I want an ice cream!” — “No, we are eating dinner soon.” — “Daddy, I want two ice creams.” — “No. And certainly not two, only one.” — “ I want two.” — “No, you can have one.” — “OK.”


This represents a simplified conversation that many parents or anyone who interacts with children have experienced at one point or another. Children often come with what seem to be unrealistic and exaggerated demands, yet they walk away with what they want. In the example above it was an ice-cream. While this seems to be extremely obvious the key lies in the detail. Let’s take a look:


What comes first is a clear statement of what happens at the end of the negotiation, which is followed by a reasoning attempt of why this will not be the case. In the statement that follows, the focus is actually shifted to this no longer being a question of whether there will be an ice cream but how many. This simple trick changes the narrative and as you figured I ended up in a position where I had to work against the new anchor of “two ice creams”.


Given that we have indoctrinated the principle of let’s move closer to a compromise, no ice cream did not seem reasonable anymore and we landed on one. With the topic of when to (not) have the ice-cream already eliminated, which seemed more stressful to open up again since we had landed on an agreement, he got his ice cream.


This is a simplified example of how anchoring works. A more famous one is the wall between Mexico and the United States; one of the primary promises by Donald Trump during his run for the presidency in 2016. He distracted the electorate from the unreasonable and unrealistic claim of building a wall between the two countries with the statement that Mexico would pay for it, which ended up dominating the discussion more than the wall itself. It also put Mexico in a position where it had to argue against paying for such a wall without actually having been party to the claim of a wall being built to begin with.


The lesson here is simple: be the first one to set an anchor, then let the other side do the bidding for alternative offers. There are many variations to this; it is possible to even increase the claim when the counterpart suggests an offer that is too low, or not moving from your own position until an acceptable offer — or an ice cream — is on the table.


#4: Varied approaches and determination


My mother still tells the story of what happened when I was four years old and we went to the toy store to buy a present for a friend’s birthday party. I went with her and conditioned by previous visits was expecting to expand my selection of toy cars. When confronted with the simple answer that this was not going to happen today (without much room for negotiation, the extent of which was probably just some begging and nagging on my part), I changed tactics to get to my goal. I threw myself on the floor and a screaming tantrum ensued, making a drama about wanting the car. This consequently caused a rush of adrenaline mixed with embarrassment and anger in my mother and she tried to lift me off the floor without success whilst the number of spectators around us grew. According to her, and I have no recollection of this, I then started to scream that she must not hit and beat me again. Yes, you guessed it right, I walked out of the shop with a new toy car.


I want to emphasise at this point that I am neither proud of this episode and nor has my mother ever hit me. I have also since apologised to her on several occasions. I am of course also not arguing that you should throw yourself on the floor kicking and screaming when you do not achieve your goal in a negotiation. However, I use this episode to illustrate that it is crucial to have a varied approach to negotiating, which combined with an understanding of the context where the negotiations take place and the counterpart’s circumstances can surprise and catch the other side off guard to your advantage.


Another example for this approach is the “good cop, bad cop” routine, which has spread far beyond law enforcement as a negotiations tactic. But whichever approach you choose, it is crucial that you apply it with determination, even if you see half-way through that it might not work. If stopped mid-way, it can present a weakness on your side and give the counterpart an opportunity to gain momentum. Remember that there is always time to regroup and choose a different approach in the next break or round of talks.


#5: Ignore intimidation


I am always amazed how many negotiations with my children I walk away thinking that I was played and that I, once again, did not really get my position through. The thing that I find most fascinating is that I am negotiating from a de-facto power position and yet, my children get their way. Besides the skills that they are seemingly born with, they also have an absolute super power which disappears as we get older; they ignore power dynamics.


Children understand that you can take decisions for them, but they are willing to fight for what they want despite you being the one taking the ultimate decision. This is incredibly smart because I will always walk out of a negotiation with them knowing that I took the final decision and I am the one that is responsible for what the final agreement was, yet they get their way extremely often. When you watch children play and learn with each other, they ignore power dynamics and try to get their way regardless.


This shows that power is not necessarily a key requisite to get your interest met during a negotiation. It can be an advantage, but it can also be a burden. With the right tactics and approaches you can work around it and actually make the one holding power take a decision that is in your favour.


The key skill here is to not be intimidated by the positions and power distributions at the beginning of the negotiations. Power dynamics will always be there, but in negotiations they can be played both ways and do not predetermine the outcome.


Negotiations are everywhere and we have great teachers in our children because they approach these situations with the pure interest of achieving their goals and use different approaches to do so. This article is not intended to undermine the win-win idea, on the contrary. All of the tactics above are relevant for win-win negotiations because they are determined by a mindset. Win-win situations are among the things that children can actually learn from us.


Adults know that not everything has to be a conflict, so whilst children have tools we can learn from, it is our responsibility to teach them how to make use of their gifts in the most productive way and not forget these skills, which happens so often as we grow up leaving us unhappy with many of life’s outcomes.

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