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To Be a Better Negotiator, Talk to Your Colleagues Like You Talk to Your Kids

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As kids, we’re taught the fundamentals of dealmaking: Listen, understand the other person’s point of view, be willing to compromise. The rules don’t change. But when those lessons aren’t properly absorbed in childhood—or when stress strips away our higher-level reasoning—even C-suite discussions can devolve into unproductive standoffs.

Fortunately, the same tactics that parents and preschool teachers use when brokering bitter playtime fights can be successfully applied to negotiations between adults. For an edge in your next challenging negotiation, don’t think like a child—think like an adult talking to a child.

Heads I win, tails you lose

“It would be hard for me to think of anything you could learn in childhood through negotiation that wouldn’t transfer to adulthood,” said William Ury, author of Getting to Yes and co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

In 2012, Google embarked on a five-year, multi-million dollar effort to identify the traits of a productive working team. It found exactly one constant among the divergent groups they studied: The most effective teams had high levels of “psychological safety,” which means that members felt mutual respect, trust, and comfort voicing their opinions, the New York Times reported. Essentially, teams are most productive when everybody plays nice.

In practical terms, that means being able to see past your own objectives long enough to understand what the other party wants, why they want it, and why it’s important to them. The problems behind kids’ immature conflicts—lack of empathy, and an all-or-nothing style of thinking—can stymie adult negotiations too.

“People who know how to manage conflicts well, whether [they are] preschool teachers or mediators, are able to hear what is going on with that child or adult: that their needs aren’t being met,” said Lisa Maxwell, director of the Training Institute at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego.

Listening ears

One illuminating training video for preschool teachers shows a complicated property dispute involving three small girls, a baby blanket, and a stick. While the onscreen teacher navigates an increasingly messy conflict (the Trans-Pacific Partnership could be more easily summarized), the title cards note conflict resolution strategies that could easily be imported into business situations:

  • Gather information
  • Acknowledge parties’ feelings throughout the interaction
  • Use language all parties understand
  • Arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

Children can’t fully grasp the concept of empathy until the age of six or seven. The methods above are used to help bend maturing brains toward empathy, but they can also be subtly employed in the context of a contentious negotiation. The goal, said Carol Gross, a preschool teacher coach at New York’s Bank Street College, is “to expand the set of possibilities that they see as a solution, beyond ‘give me what I want or you don’t get what you want.’”

“It’s not rocket science”

In 2010, a team of researchers observed 67 families to study conflict resolution within and across generations. They found, not surprisingly, that conflicts between parents and children tended to have a win-lose outcome: parents pulled rank. Standoffs were more likely between siblings and spouses, where the power dynamic was more equal.

But they also found that negotiations between adults and children were in some ways more productive than those between adults. With their children, parents spent more time working on productive, future-oriented solutions (“How can we work this out?”). With their spouses, they often engaged in the kind of oppositional behavior that solves nothing (“Seriously? You think that’s a good idea?”).

“It makes some sense,” said lead author Holly Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University. “Parents are socialization agents, so they’re being more constructive with their kids than with their partners.”

In other words, when dealing with children, adults know it’s their responsibility to set a good example. When dealing with another adult, all of that can be forgotten. The difference between stalemate and successful resolution can be remembering that each party has a duty to find a mutually acceptable solution rendered in respectful terms.

“It’s communication and empathy, which are things we learn as children or don’t learn as children,” Ury said. “It’s not rocket science.”

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