Negotiations with a monster: Applying Negotiation skills theory to persuade a toddler

Today I would like to revise some of the basics of the Negotiation skills theory, something that is taught in business schools but should actually be introduced as early as in the primary school and for everybody not only the aspiring managers and consultants. You should take it with a grain of salt yet also a toddler is a party in negotiations. Yes, when there is a discussion about something you just want to shout out loud that he or she is going to do the way you want them to do otherwise their ass will be kicked big time, but however tempting that is, it’s not a solution in the long run.

I have studied the negotiation skills theory both through various online courses, including Harvard, yet the first introduction into the theoretical foundations was done by an almost legendary South African professor Dr. David Venter. I was lucky to get to know him (and his wonderful wife – Paula Venter, whom he uses as an example and an object of comments all the time!), be able to listen to him and even at one point in time stay in his cozy house in Hermanus – the best place to watch whales. I will use some of my notes from his course and the information from the Negotiations Planning template by Infostrat©.

So let’s begin. A toddler is a monster by definition! There are couple of aspects which are especially difficult in negotiating with this monster:

  1. accepting that a toddler is to be negotiated with, not just bossed around all the time;
  2. dealing with irrational behavior – crying and shouting (but, hey, your business partners tend to get emotional and seemingly irrational as well. Yes, usually they don’t fall on the floor in the middle of a shopping mall and don’t scream that they desperately need that new toy car, but those are nuances. Emotions can get pretty high also in a boardroom.)
  3. dealing with your own emotions and mostly with your own anger (this little thing dares to question my authority?!)

So, you have – let’s call it – a disagreement with your toddler. You went to the shopping mall, your kid saw a toy in one of the shops and wants it. You say no, your kid switches on the drama-button.

According to the Negotiations skills theory you start with identifying the nature of the conflict and the issues related. In this case it is your unwillingness to buy a toy that a kid wants, hence issues, roughly speaking, are: ownership of a toy and financials. Usually financials are less of an issue and much more the problem lies in the intangible plane. The intangible issues related to the conflict are numerous: feeling of entitlement, feeling of undermined authority, honor, ability to get what you want, ability to decide, perception of usefulness, feeling of control, just to name a few.

Now, what do you do? First, you have to identify the deal parameters. Here, let me first introduce couple of terms:

  1. aspiration base – the highest achievable goals or objectives for a negotiated agreement. In plain words – realistically, what do you want to achieve?
  2. real base – the minimum you want to achieve.
  3. BATNA – best alternative to negotiated agreement – what alternative exists to satisfy your interests.

So those three points are to be identified next for all the participants of the negotiations. The contracting zone or the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), or bargaining range lies in between the real bases. This is where an agreement is possible.

Coming back to our toddler… Your aspiration base is probably – the kid shuts the hell up, gets up and peacefully walks home holding your hand and forgetting about a damn toy, right? And the minimum? At least shut up, huh? No, I guess you are more interested in the kid getting up and walking home. Your BATNA will be kicking that ass. Now, let’s look at the other side. The aspiration base of the kid is getting that toy. What’s the real base? Hmmm… Poor kid is not in the situation to “walk away from the deal”, so the real base of the kid is not having a toy, but at least expressing emotions about this unfairness of the world. No real BATNA either – I almost feel sorry for the little monster!

This all brings us in the ZOPA (that sounds extremely funny for the Russian-speaking, as [zhopa] in Russian is “an ass”; you would say literally “I am in the ass” when the situation is a total disaster). So the ass… I mean the ZOPA for our situation with a toddler will be anywhere between “not having a toy, but at least expressing emotions” and “not shutting up, but at least getting up and walking away”.

The Negotiations skills theory further prompts us to identify the most important characteristics of the other party and then proceed to the SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and competitive advantage, but I will skip these steps in our example (you have a very strong competitive advantage after all, you tyrant!).

What is important is what comes next. Interests, where also one has to identify shared interests, complementing interests and conflicting interests. Your interests are something like: having an obedient kid, quietness, getting your way (moral satisfaction of exercising authority), not having an additional useless toy at home, moving on away from the shopping mall, and so on. Interests of the kid are: having this extremely useful toy, getting his way (same moral satisfaction!), being able to express his emotions, being listened to and so forth. The real conflict if we analyze it deeper is actually only a toy, but having a toy is not even in the real base of the kid. It is all about emotions! Emotions that need to be recognized.

Theoretically (and also practically) you now have to proceed with identifying value creating options and concessions and counter-concessionsFor that there is yet another template (also by Infostrat©, which prompts to answer the following questions:

  1. what is a concession we can make to motivate the other party to move in the direction that we want? – How about an ice-cream? Or even better – we are now going to eat an ice-cream, which one do you want: vanilla or chocolate? In that way the choice is not in between accepting or not accepting, but in between accepting option A or option B.
  2. what is the reason why we would make such a concession? – We would get the kid up and moving and that’s what we want, right?
  3. what is the cost of the concession to us? – low strategic importance, minimal investment.
  4. what is the value of the concession to the other party? – moral satisfaction and a pleasant feeling in the belly
  5. what is the counter-concession we would require? – here! we can get more than our real base: and the getting up and the shutting up.

Even though I used real negotiations steps and terms, the example itself is of course meant more as a humor, as you are not going to fill up a negotiations template every time you face a tantrum from your toddler, nor you are going to buy him an ice-cream. The important point, however, is – this little monster also has interests and feelings, emotions and wishes, hopes and aspirations. A kid is entitled to all of them and just shouting and forcing your way because otherwise your authority will be undermined or you might feel ashamed in front of other people is not reasonable either.

There are different ways to deal with tantrums in kids and as a parent you most probably know best what works and what doesn’t work in your case. However, some general advice is – stay calm yourself, if possible pick up your kid and give him a tight hug, see if you can give-in (within reason of course) or what works best with my kids – distract or use humor, make a funny face or tell or better show something interesting. Just keep your cool, admit the rights and interests of your kid and figure out what value creating options can you create and which reasonable concessions can you make. It will get better one day…

 

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