Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.

Can negotiation research make you a better presenter?

Making presentations is a major part of many people’s jobs. So wouldn’t it be nice to somehow make presentations more negotiable?

Here, as in many areas, negotiation research can help. In particular, a broad reading of the negotiation literature’s distinction between distributive and integrative approaches can help to manage the many types of difficult audience members you might encounter when presenting.

First, let’s unpack the distinction. Negotiators can approach their task using a distributive or integrative approach. A distributive approach involves competitively and aggressively seeking to achieve your own interests at the expense of the counterpart’s. An integrative approach involves cooperatively and creatively seeking solutions to satisfy both parties at the same time. Negotiators can adopt either approach (or both) in nearly any context (for example, consider this application to intra-family negotiations).

And now, let’s see how the two approaches can help us deal with some prototypically nettlesome audience members—people in the audience of our presentations who…

  1. Say they have a question but really have a comment: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “What’s the question?” in an attempt to call them out. Under the integrative approach, you’d acknowledge the comment and transform it into a question you can answer, thereby validating their point but repositioning the ball in your own court.
  2. Love to hear themselves talk: The distributive approach would involve cutting them off. An integrative approach would involve asking them to pause while you answer the first twelve parts of their 434238497234-part question, then asking them if it’s ok to take the rest offline (most will oblige).
  3. Are saying something dumb: The distributive approach would involve dismissing their comments on the basis of dumbness. The integrative approach involves finding the kernel of wisdom buried in every dumb comment, then rephrasing it in smarter terms. (Making others look smarter than they are is often a good idea.)
  4. Ask about something you’re planning mention shortly: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “I’ll get to that.” Under the integrative approach, you’d complement them for acutely anticipating your line of thinking, then ask whether it’s ok to address it in X slides. Again, most are happy to oblige.
  5. Are frowning and crossing their arms: The distributive approach would involve fixating on them and trying to convince them. As described in my book, the integrative approach would involve finding more amenable negotiation partners, namely the others in the audience who are smiling and supportive.

And so, there’s a distributive and an integrative way to interact with the many difficult members of our audiences. Although I’m sure we’ve never been difficult audience members ourselves, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a distributive presenter. On that basis, I hope we can all commit to following the integrative approach ourselves.

When win-win negotiation = win-lose negotiation

Many have commented on the risks managers face by not assuming a win-win approach in negotiation—and I am one. Obstinately reject all your employees’ requests, suppliers’ inquiries, and peers’ pleas for help, and you’ll quickly find yourself on the other side of a pink slip.

But, as my friend Georg Berkel is discussing in his upcoming book on learning to negotiate, pursuing a win-win with one party can often carry a less appreciated risk of its own: creating a win-lose for someone else. Since understanding the second risk is just as critical for making management negotiable, let’s unpack this cryptic possibility.

Consider the following examples: Managers sometimes receive requests from employees hoping to be exempted from an organizational policy. Or inquiries from suppliers hoping for preferential treatment in an RFP. Or pleas from peers trying to redirect resources toward their pet projects. What’s interesting about these situations is this: A simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on win-win negotiation would essentially encourage the manager to get creative in accommodating such requests. At least when it fulfills their own managerial interests in winning friends and allies, go ahead and waive the policy, wink at the preferred supplier, speak out in favor of the pet project.

But here’s what’s even more interesting: Do each of those things, thereby securing a win-win with the requestor, and the manager is bound to create a win-lose for someone else. What about the other employees who still have to follow the policy (and thus face greater constraints)? Or the other suppliers who don’t get preferential treatment (and thus have a lesser chance of winning the deal despite a potentially better product)? Or the colleagues in other departments who find their funding cut to accommodate the peer’s expensive project (and may thus underperform)? In each case, pursuing a win-win with a requestor present at the table tends to create a win-lose for someone absent from the table. And that win-lose will likely become a lose-lose when the victim retaliates.

So what’s a poor manager to do—pursue a win-win or avoid it? I would forget this false dichotomy and instead suggest the following:

  1. Try to identify anyone markedly impacted by a prospective deal but absent from the table
  2. If appropriate and feasible, invite them to the table
  3. If not, at least try to anticipate what they would say if they were there
  4. And, better yet, incorporate whatever it is into the deal
  5. Ultimately, stand up for the win-win of the collective and not just the win-win of a cozy dyadic relationship

And so, in contrast to an overly simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on negotiation, win-win is not always an unalloyed good. Perhaps it is for the parties present, but not necessarily for the parties absent (and, for many organizational decisions, many are absent). But hopefully a mere awareness of their phantom presence can nudge the manager toward a win-win for the broader collective.