Dear Negotiation Coach: “How can we deal more successfully with our kids?”

By on / Win-Win Negotiations

Q: I avoid using hardball tactics in my professional negotiations, since they often backfire and escalate conflict. But at home, my wife and I often find ourselves resorting to threats, bribes, and lies to get our three young children (ages seven, five, and three) to cooperate, and I lose my cool more often than I’d like. Our kids may comply in the short term, but lasting improvements seem elusive. How can we deal more successfully with our most difficult negotiating counterparts—our kids?

A: Kudos to you for noticing that children respond about as well to hardball tactics and emotional outbursts as grown-ups do. By contrast, when parents use principles of collaborative negotiation judiciously, they foster trust, respect, and creative thinking in their kids. In fact, children as young as toddlers can become more cooperative when they’ve played a role in negotiating rules and resolving conflicts.

Some people object that parents who negotiate with their kids risk forfeiting too much power. But, as in the business world, negotiation doesn’t require us to make unwanted concessions, and it can still include “consequences” (if-then warnings with follow-through, such as “If you keep playing, then we won’t have time for books”). Moreover, by setting clear, consistent limits in negotiations with our kids, we protect our own needs (for respect, quiet time, and so on) and, in so doing, model healthy behavior.

Though my own negotiations with my four-year-old have achieved mixed results, I have found the following three strategies to be helpful:

1. Try an interest-based approach.
Professional negotiators understand the importance of exploring the interests that underlie a counterpart’s request or demand. When we identify what the other party values most, we open the door to trades that can create value and often head off the need for a power-based approach (that is, hardball tactics such as threats).

An interest-based approach may be especially useful when we’re dealing with children, who are generally more emotional, less rational, and less articulate than adults, and thus more prone to escalating a dispute beyond all reason. For example, if your daughter wants to wear sandals to preschool in the middle of winter, rather than demanding that she put on her boots immediately, try asking questions aimed at understanding her thinking. Suppose she reveals that she wants to emulate her favorite cartoon princess, who’s impervious to cold. Now you have an opening for a win-win deal, and maybe a science experiment, too. You could explain that although she must wear her snow boots outside, you will bring some snow inside for her to play with after school.

2. Reduce stressors.
Business negotiators learn to take steps to encourage rational decision making at the bargaining table—for example, by relaxing deadlines and devoting ample time to preparation. Similarly, as parents, we can reduce stressors that exacerbate conflict with our kids, such as fatigue and tight time frames. This might mean setting earlier bedtimes (for kids and parents alike) and finding ways to short-circuit ongoing struggles, such as helping an indecisive child choose his clothes for the week on Sunday afternoon rather than just before school each day.

3. Show empathy.
In our professional negotiations, a counterpart’s anger can make us so uncomfortable that we offer concessions just to appease her. Similarly, a child’s display of anger or frustration pushes our hot buttons. We tend to respond by expressing disapproval or downplaying his emotions, reactions that leave him feeling ashamed or misunderstood. We may also be tempted to cave in to unreasonable demands.

Instead, try using the principles of active listening to understand your children’s strong emotions better. Active listening involves paraphrasing what someone is saying without judgment, asking open-ended questions aimed at clarifying her reasoning, and identifying and acknowledging her underlying emotions. With kids in particular, mimicking their tone may convey that you take them seriously.

For example, if your three-year-old is having a meltdown because you won’t let him have another cookie, instead of trying to reason with him (“You already had two”), get down to his eye level and say, “You are really upset right now! I can tell that you really wanted that cookie! It sounds like you think I’m being unfair.” Such empathic statements, which convey that you’re not frightened by your children’s emotions, can be enormously reassuring to them.

Katherine Shonk
Editor, Negotiation Briefings
Program on Negotiation
Harvard Law School

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