5 Things I learned about Negotiation from my kids

I suck at negotiating. But you know who’s really good at it? My kids. So I’ve decided to take a page from Jeff Goins and accept a mentor from an unexpected source and learn from them.

You see, as a parent, there’s this thought in your head that you are the boss. What I say goes. But in my experience, if you’ve reached the point in a negotiation where you utter the words

because I said so

you’ve already lost. Which leads us to the first lesson:

1. When you’ve got no other card to play, you lose.

Sometimes you’ll hear this rule as always start the negotiation higher than you’d be satisfied with. Sometimes it’s always keep an ace up your sleeve. In the end, it’s about always having something to negotiate on or being able to walk away.

But the lesson here is a subtle one. You’ll notice when negotiating with kids, that they rarely run out of currency because they’re far more creative than you are. Negotiating for a later bed time? They’ll offer to feed the dog. This non-linear thinking is the key to not running out of cards.

2. Persistence

Understand the importance of the negotiation. To a kid, losing 1/2 an hour of free play time can be tantamount to a spell at Rikers. To them, it’s a life and death kind of negotiation. For you, maybe it’s just about 1/2 an hour of quiet solitude in the evening. Who is going to negotiate harder?

A kid will continue to negotiate until they get what they want. They will keep at it past any point of decorum or self-respect. “Please, pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top.” The ability to recognize what that negotiation is worth to you and the willingness and ability to go long are keys to success. Some might call it wearing you down. I say it’s skilled negotiation.

3. Emotional appeals

One of the biggest mistakes that we can make as parents is to assume that negotiating is a rational and logical endeavour. Negotiation is always about emotions.

Kids inherently know this. They take the negotiation personally: “I’ll hate you forever.” They will manipulate your emotions to get a result: “you would if you loved me.” For them, it’s always personal. People make decisions based on greed, fear, a need to win and many others. A successful negotiation requires recognizing that and using it. Perhaps just not as shamelessly as a child might.

4. Show both kinds of value

As parents, we often forget that there are two sides to every story. When negotiating we often focus just on one aspect of the result we’re after: do it or else.

As parents, we tend to focus on what the kids will lose if they don’t do as they’re asked. This makes sense since our experience teaches us that, as a rule, people are loss averse. But most loss aversion studies are done on adults, and kids are only just beginning to learn to respond as we would expect. Children are far more narcissistic than an average adult. As a result, they have a lower fear response and a higher self-interest. This leads to a lower level of loss aversion.

Since are worried less about loss, kids are far more likely to offer stakes in a negotiation from both perspectives: I’ll do what you want or I’ll do what you don’t want. Whichever we as a parent respond to is what they go with as their opening position. But don’t forget, they’re persistent, so expect a return to the opposite if their opening position doesn’t go well.

Showing the benefit your offer provides, but also showing the loss your offer prevents is key to triggering the emotional buy-in that is key to winning a negotiation.

5. Make your argument first

There is a key concept in sales and negotiation called anchoring. Kids are masters of this. As soon as kids feel there is something on the table to be won or lost, they have opened negotiation with their proposed position. Effectively they have anchored the entire rest of the negotiation to their preferred position just by getting it on the table first.

Think about it, imagine you want your children to finish their dinner. In your mind, you might think to offer a choice (let’s be honest, a bribe) of a cookie if they do. In your mind, the negotiation is about no dessert or a cookie. My kids are smart, they’ll jump in before I’ve had a chance to offer this with a request for an ice cream cone with chocolate sauce on the back deck if they finish their supper. At this point, they’ve anchored the negotiation. If I’m not careful, I’m negotiating between a cookie and an ice cream cone, or, I’m negotiating between no dessert and an ice cream cone with chocolate sauce on the back deck. Either one of those provides a bigger upside for the kids than they would have had otherwise, which they accomplished purely by anchoring the negotiation.

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 John F. Kennedy

If I’ve learned one thing in watching my children out-negotiate me it is this: they are damn good at it. It saddens me to think that I used to be this good and had that skill squashed. I want my kids to be excellent negotiators. I want them to continue to develop this incredibly important skill into adulthood. I want to teach my kids about thinking for themselves. And as such, I have to leave my ego at the door and learn to accept that losing a few negotiations will be key to that learning.

Always keep an ace up your sleeve, never give up, play to the heart, play both sides of the coin and always go first. 5 lessons I learned about negotiation from my kids.


Jon Holt

A coach, an entrepreneur, and a no-bull advisor in growing small businesses through the use of practical strategy, light-weight governance and sitting back and thinking about running your business, regardless of what you do.

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