Lessons from Negotiating with Children: Uncovering and Meeting Interests

by Ho Ting En

Have you ever thought that talking to children is either entertaining or just a chore? Well, turns out that one of the best learning opportunities to improve our negotiating abilities comes from negotiating with children. While parenting articles and books increasingly advocate negotiation with children as a way to teach them to think critically and weigh the value of options, such practice can actually also benefit us, the adults.

Negotiations with children allow us to better handle difficult situations, as they can similarly exhibit behaviour that mirror challenging adult negotiations. In this first part of a three-part series, we will look at how negotiation with children helps us obtain interests of the other party.

This series is developed according to 7 Elements of Negotiation, as espoused in the seminal book, Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This book focuses on principled negotiation, rather than positional bargaining.  The latter is a negotiation strategy where parties hold on to a position and push for it, regardless of their underlying interests. On the other hand, principled negotiation focuses on looking at the interests behind the position taken.  The 7 Elements – interests, options, legitimacy, communication, relationship, alternatives and commitment – offers us a framework upon which we can carry out principled negotiation.

 

Today, we will be looking at interests.

Behind every position taken, there is an interest. For example, “I want a pay raise” is a position, where the underlying interest could be wanting more recognition for the work done. Sometimes, it is easy to understand someone else’s interest, especially if it is obvious or if they offer to explain. However, often, most of us do not realise that what we are insisting upon are just positions, or we may just be unwilling to share our thoughts.

Given that children start requesting for things as young as 2, negotiating with them may have actually given us constant practice in trying to reach someone’s interest without sacrificing our own. Here are 3 tips to help you with your next negotiation:

 

(1) Ask questions:

Asking questions to children is second-nature to us because we know that they struggle to articulate their feelings. Hence, we take the initiative to ask, “Why are you sad?”

However, the inability to articulate is just as relevant to adults, whose interests can be intangible or difficult to be described. Asking “why” helps us understand what is important to the other party. With people who do not want to disclose their interests, William Ury suggests in Getting Past No that asking “why not” could indirectly achieve the same effect. This is because people who are reluctant to share their concerns may instead be willing to critique. By getting them to comment on your approach, you obtain valuable information on what their concerns could be. Therefore, if you ask, “Why not do it this way?” and the person replies, “No! I have two jobs and I have children to take care of!”, you would have received the information you needed.

If the other side still remains silent, you can offer what you think their interests are. Children may be unwilling to divulge information, but they can nonetheless be tempted to correct someone’s misunderstanding of their interests. From personal experience of teaching young children from 3 to 8-years-old, I find that gently asking sullen children questions such as, “Are you sad because this question is too difficult?” is usually more effective than, “What happened?” The former question may prompt a child to reply that it was not because of the work but because he is hungry, while the latter may generate no response. This instinctive urge to remedy others’ misunderstandings is just as strong in adults. Try bringing their interests up and invite them to correct you. Remember however, that this approach aims to encourage responses by making proposals of your own. The intention is to trigger reaction and to acquire information, not to accuse or to force the other party to say ‘yes’.

 

(2) Do not let the other party negotiate around you:

Negotiating around someone is different from negotiating with someone. Children commonly negotiate around adults when they want their way. A child might persist in going for a sleepover at a friend’s house by protesting, “You said I shouldn’t sit around the house doing nothing!” You might have concerns about her safety since she is still young, but she may then retort, “I am old enough!” or “You allowed sister to go for a sleepover.” By ignoring your concerns, the child is exhibiting behaviour of ‘negotiating’ around the parent. In reality, the parent says, “Yes,” not because she sees value in the proposal but because she is tired of arguing.

Likewise, it is important to realise when the other negotiator is in fact working around you, rather than with you. Sometimes, we may face negotiators who belittle our alternatives, “NO way that’s going to work,” make personal insults, “Are you stupid?”, or even just flat-out refuse to cooperate by repeatedly saying, “No.” It may be useful to consider if you are given room to genuinely discuss your interests and options. Otherwise, you may risk agreeing to a proposal which does not give sufficient consideration to your interests.

 

(3) Do not make important decisions on the spot:

Some parents advise not making important decisions on the spot as it will be difficult to change your answer later even if you want to. Changing from “no” to “yes” may lead the child to think that what he did in the interim, such as crying, was useful. In the same vein, changing from “yes” to “no” may cause you to break a promise. To prevent both situations, tell the child honestly that you need some time to think and that you will answer by the end of the day.

This similarly applies to the negotiations where some like to play tricks by sneaking in a proposal at the close of discussions. When the other negotiator says, “So I assume warranty is included?”, refrain from saying “yes” on the spot just because of the pressure. This is because in so doing, you would have undermined a fair treatment of your interests, and changing your answer after the negotiation risks jeopardising the deal. As Ury said in Getting Past No, your worst enemy is your quick reaction. In these situations, do not be afraid to point out that you have suddenly been presented with an important proposal and that you either need more time to consider or both parties should re-open the negotiation.

 

This is the end of Part 1, where I have hopefully shown how negotiating with children helps us develop skills to obtain the other side’s interests while addressing our own. In the next part, we will discuss the process of generating options.

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Ting En is a graduate of National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law. She studied Negotiation as an undergraduate, as well as Mediation for the Singapore Bar Examinations. She has an avid interest in working with children and has participated in many related projects, from organising sports activities for underprivileged children to giving weekly tuition at a children’s home. During her time as an undergraduate, Ting En was also part of the committee in charge of the Innocence Project Singapore.

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