A masterclass in negotiation

This article comes from my colleague Stephen. Someone else writing an article on this blog is a sufficiently rare event that I thought I should mention it (IPDraughts)

I recently completed a six week masterclass in negotiation tactics – aka the school summer holidays.  One unexpected takeaway for me has been realising the similarities between two negotiation bibles. 

Getting to Yes comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project and cites weighty strategic examples such as SALT disarmament talks and the Egypt-Israeli war.  It sits on all good corporate book-shelves.  How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen is practical help for parents.  Styled as a survival guide it is written by two Mums from America – albeit Mums who are acknowledged experts and ‘parent educators’. 

Reflecting, what has struck me is the crossover.  In many ways these two books say essentially the same thing.

GtY: academics on negotiation

GtY – principled negotiation

GtY espouses principled negotiation over positional bargaining.  Negotiators should avoid the hard or soft game.  In that game, some will focus on looking for the answer they will accept (soft) or for the answer you will accept (hard); others will always be flexible and yield to pressure (soft) while others dig in and resist pressure (hard).  Instead, GtY puts the focus on the people and their interests.  Understand those and you will see a way through.  GtY’s thinking is that conflict is often rooted in the subjective views that exist inside people’s heads.  So, give the participants a stake in the outcome in order to minimise conflict.  Be hard on the problem but not on the people.  Avoid threats because they just spiral and things soon get out of control.  Spend time working together to brainstorm inventive solutions.  If things become heated or stuck, change the environment – move to a neutral space, refresh the context.  Consider every suggestion but settle on an approach that uses objective criteria because that will lead to a fair solution.

HtT – resolving conflict

HtT: parents on negotiation

HtT focusses on resolving conflict.  There is much conflict involved in parenting – even getting past breakfast can feel like enough discussion, negotiation and (often) screaming to last a whole week.  HtT says parents should avoid cycles of punishment and reward because they escalate and rapidly become unrealistic.  Instead, problem solve together.  HtT suggests working together to brainstorm a list of possibilities.  Everyone involved has a chance to explain what really worries them and what they are really after and why.  Everyone has the opportunity to add suggestions to a list (actually writing a list is important) however bonkers those suggestions might seem.  As a result, everyone involved has had input to the proposed solution and everyone feels engaged.  And, if (when) discussions become too intense, HtT urges parents to de-escalate by managing the environment not the child. 

How to talk to get to yes…

As I see it, there are some common themes emerging:


Talk and listen, don’t just shout.  Realistically, how often has shouting at your child (or your business partner) really worked?  Even if it got you where you wanted to be, chances are the relationship suffered.  GtY says the negotiator should avoid positional bargaining and avoid the traditional hard or soft tactics.  HtT says the parent should focus on understanding what people are saying (and why) and on resolving conflict.  Children don’t go ‘oh, well now you’re shouting of course I will comply’.  But, if given the chance, they do sometimes say ‘I’m not doing it because I am really worried about this’ allowing you to make ‘this’ go away and for peace to return. 

Look for solutions together.  GtY suggests brainstorming inventive solutions.  Negotiation should be about merits not positions.  They should give the participants a stake in the outcome by involving them in designing the solution.  HtT proposes that parents should exploit the positive possibilities of problem solving together with their children: make lists of suggestions together.  Any suggestion can be added onto the list however ludicrous it may seem.  That way, everyone is heard and everyone is engaged.

Don’t make threats.  GtY and HtT both emphasise how easily and quickly threats and rewards mushroom and take on a life of their own.  With children, the threat of restricted screentime can quickly aggregate to the extent that, if followed through, there would be no screentime for about the next four years.

It is a distraction but is it cake?

The environment matters.  GtY says that changing the environment can promote calm and progress.  HtT urges parents to manage the environment not the child.  If the cake is a distraction, hide the cake.

Of course, there are limits to this comparison.  I doubt many children start by considering their BATNA before they grab the TV remote (‘I want Paw Patrol, I’ll settle for David Attenborough but anything less and I’m going to play with the Lego instead’).  GtY sees the BATNA as the key to ensuring that you don’t accept a bad deal.  But this is a blog post not a doctoral thesis.  Quite possibly this post simply highlights an encouraging curiosity: in getting the kids out of the door to school on time (with their shoes on the correct feet) or in getting the kids to turn off (or even pause) YouTube for long enough to eat supper, parents are cementing their position as top-flight negotiators.  Harvard Negotiation Project, here we come!


Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “A masterclass in negotiation

  1. I have been amazed by similarities between work and parenting ever since I have become a parent and started learning about parenting approaches.

    I would add two books to the list though:
    Nonviolent communication by Rosenberg
    And Never split the difference by Voss.

    Both very useful in dealing with 4-year old terrorists, customer service reps as well as the guys on the other side of the boardroom table and really just variations on the theme of empathy and listening.

  2. I’m certain that every reader of this blog has many anecdotes about negotiation. I have two observations. One, in my experience there’s a big difference between a negotiation where both sides want or need a deal to be reached and a negotiation where at least one party is (truly) indifferent about reaching a deal. That type of motivational mismatch can be difficult to overcome, regardless of tactics. Two, a wise Chinese lawyer once told me that the contract is just the beginning of what actually happens. If parties entering into a long-term transactional relationship have a contentious negotiating experience, it’s likely that they will have a contentious operating experience as well.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.