Lessons from Negotiating with Children: Communicating Effectively and Building Relationships

by Ho Ting En

In this last part of a three-part series, we look at the interpersonal skills involved in a negotiation. This is a three-part series written based on the framework of the 7 Elements of Negotiation. For ease of reference and the convenience of readers, the links to Parts 1 and 2 are listed below:


Why is communication so important in a negotiation? Well, remember that in every negotiation, we are talking to someone who is not us. This sounds like I am just stating the obvious. However, conveying a message is not easy even for people with extensive amount of shared experiences. We carry our own assumptions and backgrounds that invariably influence the way we perceive messages we give and receive. In this regard, thinking about the way we communicate with children, with whom we cannot be more different from, forces us to evaluate the methods in which we convey our ideas. Here are 2 tips for better communication.

(1) Use short sentences:

We know long preambles do not work with children. This is why we break our sentences down into simple ones, and we instinctively speak in a succinct manner when communicating with children.

This technique is actually recommended for negotiations too. A negotiator should speak clearly to promote understanding. The longer the statement, the greater the chance of misinterpretation. One can avoid this risk by breaking complex messages into small parts and allowing pauses so that the other party can digest the information.1

(2) Do not trivialise the other side’s emotions; acknowledge them:

When a child reacts strongly in some way, telling the child, “I understand that you are angry, but…” may be more effective than saying dismissively, “This is nothing to get angry over.” Such a response acknowledges the child’s emotions with regard to his or her problems, which may take us one step closer towards resolution. In the same vein, we should not gloss over the other negotiating party’s position and feelings by trivialising them. Just as we acknowledge a child’s fears and insecurities, we should not ignore an adult’s emotions by thinking that they are necessarily insignificant. What we can do instead is to recognise that the feeling is valid, but that perhaps we can resolve and move past it for a successful negotiation.

One powerful form of acknowledgment of the other person’s feelings is an apology. A lesson we learn as children is that if we say, “I’m sorry”, our parents will not be angry anymore. Somehow, this is something we either forget or unlearn as we grow up. There is an example of a Columbia law professor whose 8-year-old son sat in his class because he could not find a babysitter. When the professor asked the contract class what the seller should do after having defaulted on delivery and the buyer stopped payment, his son spoke up, “I would say I’m sorry.”2 A classic contractual discussion on who is liable to pay damages turned out to be a valuable negotiation lesson.

Even if the other side is primarily responsible, we can still consider apologising for our part. The aim of this is to take responsibility for our share and our apology may bring about a corresponding acceptance of responsibility from the other side. This will then be a good step towards resuming a working relationship. However, an apology should be sincere. One quality of an effective apology in negotiations is that it should be the consequence of some analysis and introspection. If it comes off too spontaneously, it loses power and legitimacy.3


Humans react, and what we do instinctively in a difficult situation is to act first, think later. However, as a quote from Ambrose Bierce goes, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Sometimes, it may be better to stop negotiating temporarily in order for the relationship between both parties to resume its functional state.

Children throw tantrums because they think this is how they can get what they want.  In response, some parents utilise the “1-2-3” technique, which is a form of time-out. This supports the stopping of negotiation with children, which some of us may find surprising. However, this may be needed when the child simply has no interest in listening to any constructive arguments. In such situations, say firmly, “That’s one,” when the child whines. If he persists, say, “That’s two”. The final warning comes, “That’s three,” and the child is brought out of the room for a five-minute break. The point of this is to remove emotions from the discipline. Usually, the child returns with a glare but the fury has subsided and he is more likely to listen.

In situations when to continue negotiating is to create more conflict, a time-out to remove emotions is equally needed. Of course, in contrast to the “1-2-3” response where the child is taken out, here we are not removing the other party but ourselves from the emotional setting. It has been said that the easiest technique to minimise the impact of strong emotions is to interrupt the encounter with a short break. One way to achieve this is to suggest a coffee break. This removes negative emotions, and also provides opportunities for parties to cool down.

Where a break is not possible, some negotiators find that one of the most effective solutions is to remember the power of not reacting.4 William Ury inadvertently angered President Chavez on their first meeting when he was mediating between Chavez and his opposition in Venezuela. Instead of reacting, Ury waited for an hour until Chavez calmed down, before he started talking again. This time, Chavez was much more receptive to what Ury had to say. Similarly, rather than responding to the other side’s tantrums, it may be more powerful to exercise self-control and keep our focus on our objective of being in the negotiation.

Even as we are adults, we are still emotional beings. Thus, negotiating with children is a good reflection of negotiations which involve heightened feelings, difficult negotiators, or the inability to articulate the reasons behind our views. This is the last part of a series on lessons learnt from negotiating with children. I hope they has been helpful, and I wish you all the best with your future negotiations!

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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.

Peacemakers offers the services of internationally accredited mediators with extensive experience in resolving local and international conflicts. If you are involved in a dispute, let us know your requirements via email at mediate@peacemakers.sg, and we will recommend you the mediators that best meet your needs.

  1. Roger Fisher & Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate, (New York: Penguin Books, 1989) at 97
  2. Supra note 8 at 61
  3. Jennifer Gerarda Brown, “The Role of Apology in Negotiation” (2003) 87 Marq. L. Rev. 665 (2003) at 669
  4. William Ury, “The Art of Self Control” in Sarah Nolan, eds, Straight Talk from the The World’s Top Business Leaders, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), Ch 9 at 56

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