by Ho Ting En
How many of us only think of professional negotiators and instructors when we want to learn more about negotiation? However, children themselves can actually be very good negotiators too! In this post, we will be looking at some negotiation techniques children use which we can adopt and adapt to be better negotiators.
Interestingly, a study conducted on preschool children who were presented with hypothetical conflict scenarios showed that 63% of them preferred negotiation as a conflict management strategy.1 This demonstrates that even children as young as 3 are capable of a mature understanding of conflict management.2 Of course, most young children will not be able to translate this understanding into concrete skills and they may also instinctively engage in positional bargaining. Nonetheless, here are four techniques we can learn from them.
(1) Be creative
Children are known to be imaginative. Childhood was probably the only period of our life when we ‘worked’ a different occupation every day or played with dolls that ‘transformed’ into mermaids.
We may already know that in negotiations, it is important to think creatively at the stage of generating options, so as not to box ourselves in. However, we can strengthen this notion by remembering how we were when we were younger. Children generally do not put down their ideas because they are “impractical” or “stupid”, at least not until they grow older and become influenced by peers and society. This quality is said to be the underlying reason for children’s special negotiating powers. Judgment hinders imagination, and imagination can be key to generating creative options that meet both parties’ needs in a much better way than a textbook solution. Therefore, we should not be afraid to be bold in playing with different possibilities and to really use our imagination without fear of judgement.
(2) Be direct about your needs
Young children are very direct, so a child often says, “I want this.” Adults are less straightforward, knowing that being too direct offends people and comes across as rude. However, clarity is important and sometimes, revealing your needs in a round-about manner is ineffective. As Fisher says in Getting to Yes, the chance of negotiation serving your interests “increases when you communicate them”. There is also less room for misunderstandings because the more openly we communicate, the less basis there is for suspicion. Imagine a husband who does not want to eat out because he is on a temporary healthy diet. He is probably better off being truthful than to reject all the restaurants the wife has suggested by saying that he dislikes their service.
(3) Play the repeat game
Children like to repeat other people’s words to irritate. We must have had at least one experience with a child who echoes us when we say, “Stop doing that!” Although this is typical childish behaviour, such parroting exercise is something we can actually replicate in negotiations.
However, our aim of repeating is not to annoy, but to reassure. This is because repeating parts of what the other person has said can show there is a common vision, which can be helpful in moving stalled negotiations forward. If two parties are negotiating over profit-sharing of a business, you can repeat that the partner taking the bigger risk should receive larger share, even as you disagree on how this risk should be calculated.3 At the very least, repeating the other person’s words can be a good way to summarise what you have heard to assure the other party that you have been listening.
(4) Find the right person to negotiate with
Finding the right person is a combination of checking out who would say “yes” and who has authority. Do you remember how as children, we look to the adult who is more likely to say “yes” because it increases the chances of getting what we want?
Similarly, as a negotiator, one way to increase success is to scope out the situation before making the first pitch, so as to choose the person who is more likely to react positively. Convincing one person first on the other negotiating team may also be a smart move in getting the eventual consensus of the entire team later. That said, a child will not ask his grandmother if he can have a dog if he knows that the true decision-making power lies with his mother. Likewise, we can approach someone who will say “yes” but should be mindful that it may not generate into a sustainable agreement if the person who says “yes” does not have authority or has no access to authority.
I hope this post has pointed out some of the interesting ways in which children can also be good negotiators. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can draw from children is that they never give up. When they fail at one negotiation, they simply move on to the next one with just as much enthusiasm. At the end of the day, becoming a better negotiator is a process, and we can enhance this by learning from negotiations with those who are in the youngest and freshest phase of their lives. I hope this has been helpful!
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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