Lessons from Negotiating with Children: Generating Options and Finding Solutions

by Ho Ting En

In Part 1, we looked at understanding and obtaining interests of the other party to the negotiation. In this second part, we turn to the next step – generating options. This is a three-part series written based on the framework of the 7 Elements of Negotiation, which has been described in Part 1.

When we talk about option generation, we are looking at the process of brainstorming and generating variety of possibilities. At this stage, the key is to be creative and not limiting ourselves to only one idea as deciding on the option which becomes the final solution comes later. Here are 3 ways in which negotiating with children can hone our skill in this regard.

(1) Do not be fixated with the end goal:

Most parents agree that having a well-prepared plan to reach the goal is good, but not fool-proof. Children will somehow cause these plans to go awry. Sometimes, we are so focused on the end point that we want to get there in the most direct manner. However, if you have interacted with young children before, you would probably know that you are not going to reach the supermarket by driving straight to the store. The kids may be distracted; they may want a detour for ice-cream; or they might want to ride their scooters there. You will end up negotiating with your children on how to reach there, but that’s okay. The route you ultimately settle on may in fact be the best route for bringing everyone happily to the store.

In the same vein, we should be well-prepared for a negotiation but be mindful not to restrict ourselves to only one fixed option in reaching the goal. For example, I may have received defective goods from a supplier. Instinctively, I may directly demand for compensation, which after all, seems like the fastest option. However, if I take a step back rather than being fixated on wanting to settle the matter, I might see other options, such as requesting the supplier to undertake rectification of the defects. I could also ask for a replacement batch. Perhaps, I can keep the goods which are satisfactory and return the defective ones to the supplier. After all, my end goal and interest is to end up with goods that are of good quality.

By being open to the possibilities, we may just end up discovering a new route and/or inventing an option which we would not have seen if our eyes were fixated on the end goal. Having more options also means more chances of finding a solution which meets both parties’ interests.

(2) Invite the other party into generating options:

Imagine a child who wants to use the iPad. Rather than taking it away, you can discuss with the child on what she is using the iPad for and when she wants to use it. This can lead to the child coming up with a list of “things to do” before she can use the device. When the child participates in this decision-making, she is more likely to feel involved and be invested in the solution.

Similarly, in a negotiation, it is not as effective if parties arrive at an agreement with only one side pushing the process. Instead, we can invite the other party in generating options with us. This increases sense of joint ownership over the ideas and may motivate us to reach an agreement more quickly. Thus, while a salesman typically throws out a few options, and the customer chooses one, it may be better if the customer is allowed to build on the solutions offered and jointly work with the salesman for improved options1.

(3) Being flexible

Children especially like to negotiate on the amount of homework they are given, or the work they have to finish in class. Sometimes, I give them different options. Do they want to finish 2 sheets of questions during lesson and take 2 sheets home? Or do they want to finish all 4 at home? Or do they want to stay back a little and finish all 4? During this discussion, the child considers different factors, such as their free time at home, the time spent waiting after class for parents to pick them up, or whether they are really tired that day or not. More often than not, we then arrive at an acceptable outcome for us both. Rather than imposing strict instructions on them all the time, I find that occasional flexibility can work well on children.

In a negotiation, we can also be flexible, for example in terms of quantity and deadlines, so long as doing so will not compromise any bottom-lines, the quality or the project itself. Say a supplier has trouble delivering just for the month of June, but will be able to make up for the shortfall in quantity in July. In such a situation, the buyer can consider being flexible and agree to an option of delayed delivery so long as this does not affect the buyer adversely. This is especially so if the relationship between the buyer and supplier is something worth maintaining.

Through Part 1 and Part 2, we can better understand how to derive Interests and Options, which are two elements that help us in reaching an agreement. In the last part, we will look at the elements of Communication and Relationship, which are more about soft skills and interactions with people.

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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. Jeff Weiss, HBR Guide to Negotiating, (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016) at 87

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