Our many opportunities to mediate: And our new opportunity to learn how

Does it seem like the people all around you just can’t get along? Do you often lament everyone’s inability to relate to everyone else, which often impedes your own happiness?

If so, you’re in luck. You have many daily opportunities to mediate! Anytime you can help the people around you reconcile their differences, you have the everyday opportunity to mediate. And anytime you engage in everyday mediation, you also have the opportunity to make life negotiable—for the disagreeable parties, but also often for yourself.

Indeed, it must be your lucky day because you not only have many opportunities to mediate; you also have an excellent new book by conflict resolution experts Jeanne Brett, Stephen Goldberg, and Beatrice Blohorn-Brenneur that tells you exactly how to do so. Before considering the book, though, let’s consider just a few of our many daily opportunities to mediate and thus make life negotiable:

  1. Arguing kids. Who gets to play with the dinosaur? Who gets to sit closer to the TV? Who gets to eat the remaining sliver of birthday cake? Such are the disagreements that frequently arise among young kids, and that often call for a parental mediator, whose efforts not only pacify the kids but protect their own sanity.
  2. Factional families. The approaching holidays tend to bring families closer—physically but not always emotionally. Families frequently have factions—be it about politics, personal style, or past events and slights. An opportunity to mediate around the turkey and thereby boost everyone’s holiday cheer, perhaps?
  3. Disagreeable coworkers. We don’t always get to choose our teammates. Sometimes we’re stuck with an organizational team containing two irascible souls who mix like oil and water. But their bad blood doesn’t change our own accountability for the project deliverable. Mediating is often the only way to contain the oil spill before it poisons the well.
  4. Competing impulses. We often experience conflicts within ourselves—a struggle between want and should, for example, or a tug-of-war between work and life. Finding a way to mediate between impulses without trampling one or the other can often pave the only road to balance.
  5. Prickly contractors. Those of us who own homes know that they often require maintenance. Unfortunately, that maintenance sometimes fails to produce the desired outcome, and we as homeowners have to figure out why. Is that ugly bulge in the ceiling a result of the roofer’s leaky shingles, the painter’s shoddy patchwork, or the insulator’s clumsy footwork? Ask the roofer, and you’ll probably hear the painter or insulator. You get the picture. Mediating between protective and prickly contractors who think none of their own work may have contributed to a problem may be the only way to get your house fixed without footing the bill for a redo.

Luckily, the new book by Brett and colleagues tells you just about everything you might want to know about mediation. From what it is, to how to do it, to handling the inherent difficulties, this  book offers an easily accessible and eminently valuable resource for those of us who have to mediate—that is, for all of us. So I hope you read it, as I have. And I hope it helps to make your own life more negotiable, as it has mine.

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Do I have to? Convincing yourself to do things

A significant portion of life consists of convincing yourself to do things—things you know you should do but really don’t want to. From watching your diet, to organizing your garage, to seeing the doctor, unappealing but critical tasks abound.

What can negotiations research teach us about such situations? Quite a lot if we treat them as negotiations between two tiny versions of ourselves—one motivated by wants and the other by needs. Indeed, by construing such situations as negotiations between our want selves and should selves, we can start to make life negotiable.

In particular, when you see your should self imploring you to do something that your want self detests, it can often help to:

  1. Consider their underlying intentions. Neither your want self nor your should self has ulterior motives. The should self doesn’t want to eliminate all your fun by imploring you to diet; that self is only trying to watch your waistline. Conversely, the want self doesn’t want to prematurely clog your arteries; that self simply wants you to enjoy the burger. Acknowledging the positive intentions of both selves can help you to take both seriously.
  2. Make mutually beneficial tradeoffs. If your two selves are fighting over just one issue, one of them is likely to leave unhappy. If they’re debating whether to eat that cake, for example, the should self will be none-too-pleased when you do. But each self probably has additional concerns. For example, perhaps your should self has been nagging you to see the doctor. Would that self let you eat the cake if you agreed to see the doctor?
  3. Get creative to satisfy both selves’ interests. Alternatively, can you identify a creative solution that satisfies both sides at the same time—often called a bridging solution? Imagine your two selves are fighting over whether to clean the garage, for example. Could you satisfy both by paying somebody else to do so?

The nice part about negotiations with yourself is that you always tend to win. But perhaps these tips can help you to identify a win-win.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.

Convincing kids to do things: On multiparty negotiation

Convincing multiple children to do something—anything—is a multiparty negotiation. Coming out of the bath, putting on their shoes, going to bed, you name it: it’s a multiparty negotiation (I’m told.)

Given the complexity of such situations, wouldn’t it be nice if negotiation research could help? It would, and it can. Negotiation scholars have surfaced several important principles that can make this and many other quasi-conflicts with multiple people more negotiable. Particularly relevant to parenting:

  1. Set the agenda: In any multiparty setting, research emphasizes the importance of setting the agenda—that is, dictating what will be discussed and when. So if you want your multiple kids to get out of the bath, and they also want to discuss the possibility of a nighttime snack, make sure you dictate the order of the topics. For example: “I can only discuss snacks with dry people.”
  2. Clarify the decision rule: In any multiparty setting, research also emphasizes the importance of setting the right decision rule and conveying it clearly. If it’s you and two small kids, will we decide whether we’re going to bed by majority rule or consensus? Either way, no one will ever sleep. Difficult and cold-hearted as it might seem, parents at least occasionally must remind their aspiring negotiators that the parent gets the final say.
  3. Form an early coalition: Research emphasizes the importance of forming and managing coalitions carefully. With experience, parents typically develop a refined understanding of their potential coalition partners. They know that when they want their two kids to get their shoes on, one will probably comply more readily. If so, then they might consider convincing that kid to act before making the broader appeal, thereby creating a sense of momentum moving in the direction of the front door.
  4. Break unhelpful coalitions: Perhaps you weren’t quick enough to form a stable coalition. Perhaps your two kids have conspired against you to never leave the bathtub, come low or high water. In that case, you might have to break the coalition, often by offering an inducement. “Whoever gets out of the bath first gets the monkey towel!” Just watch the coalitions shift.
  5. Emphasize ties that bind: Lest all this coalition building and breaking threaten to isolate one of the kids, it’s important to frequently reaffirm the broader identity and goals that bind the whole family together. “We all want to have fun at the amusement park tomorrow, Suzie-Q and Billy-Boy. So let’s all work together to get enough sleep.”

None of these strategies is rocket science, and anyone with kids can tell you that none will always work. In combination and with repetition, though, these strategies should start to make the multiparty negotiation of parenting at least a bit more negotiable. Good luck!