Behavior & Environment

Tactics for Everyday Negotiations with Kids

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Every day we negotiate with the kids and adults we interact with. They’re most often small negotiations like what activity to do or how to best address a challenging behavior. Being able to quickly and comfortably navigate these small negotiations throughout the day plays a big part in maintaining a positive, (relatively) stress-free environment for ourselves and the kids in our care. However, when small negotiations become burdensome, when a small thing feels like a big deal, our stress level quickly rises. We’ll look at some tools to help us move through our daily negotiations more easily. 

1.  Identify Shared Goals
It’s a lot easier to get to a consensus when we can identify our shared goals. Even when on the surface it seems like you have nothing in common, if you pull back far enough, you’ll find common ground. For example, imagine some kids want to do a 30-minute paint project for the afternoon activity and other kids want to do a 2 hour Lego plane build. You only have room for one of those activities. Instead of permitting the kids to jump into defending their choice, you can begin the negotiation by recognizing your shared goal of wanting to do something creative and fun in the afternoon. Once that is recognized, you can work backwards towards possible solutions. You might say something like, “We have the space to do one activity at a time. With that in mind, how can we reach our goal of doing something creative and fun this afternoon?” Kids are great problem solvers so you may hear ideas like painting today and building tomorrow, taking the painting outside and using the indoor space to build, or agreeing on a 3rd option everyone likes.

The same tool works with adults. Imagine you have a parent who wants to ignore a behavior problem and you want to tackle it head-on. After some discussion, you realize you’re quickly heading towards an impasse where you’re both caught in a loop of defending your own positions. Instead, you pull back and start again with your shared goal of helping the child. You might say something like, “I know both our ideas are based on a shared goal; helping Sam. If you’re willing, I’d like to talk about the advantages of letting the behavior run its course (the parent’s words) and also the advantages of intervening. I know we can find a way to help Sam through this.” This redefines the negotiation as a collaboration rather than a conflict.

Using shared goals to reframe a negotiation is a genuine and easy way to move towards an agreement. Once you start modeling it with kids and clients, you’ll find they begin to think that way too.

2. Use Open-Ended Questions

Before you can truly collaborate with someone, you have to understand where they’re coming from. This understanding comes from genuinely asking open-ended questions and listening to understand, not to reply. 

For example, imagine you have a 6-year-old who doesn’t want to participate in the upcoming field day. Rather than forcing them to join in, you can ask things like “What pops into your mind when you think about field day?”, “Tell me about a time when you participated in a field day before?” or “What would make field day fun for you?” The exact question isn’t important; what’s important is that it gives you a view into what the child is thinking and feeling.

The same idea applies to adults too. For example, imagine you have a parent client who wants their child to arrive late and still get breakfast, even though it’s against your policy. You want to help the family but you’re not sure what you can do. Asking questions like “What is your morning routine like?” or “What would you like morning time here to look like for Sam?” will give you some insight into possible solutions.

The one question that is hard for adults and kids to answer is “Why?” Most people can’t easily articulate why they think, feel, want, or not want something or behave in a certain way. Good open-ended questions get to the why in a roundabout way.

3. Utilize Collaborative Language Tools

  • Invite Input – When you’re done sharing your perspective, invite the other person to also share theirs. For example, when you say to a parent “I don’t feel our current way of communicating around Michael’s homework works very well” you can add, “How do you feel our communication is working?” This simple invitation shows the other person you’re interested in their viewpoint, not just your own. It also makes it easier for them to focus on their thoughts and feelings, rather than just respond to yours.

  • Encourage Brainstorming – Problem-solving doesn’t come naturally to everyone. You may feel that when you’re faced with a problem, brainstorming is a given, however, many people don’t naturally move to that step in a conversation. You can guide them through the transition by saying “Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’d like your help in brainstorming a solution that will work for both of us.”

  •  Buy In Question – Often times in problem-solving we suggest a solution that can sound to the listener, like an order or ultimatum even when that’s not our intention. Using a buy in question can remind them that while we have our own ideas, we want to make sure they’re on board. It’s also another invitation to share other ideas. Adding something like “Does that work for you?” is a simple way to make sure that the other person is on the same page around moving forward.

Words matter. Even a small change in the way you present an idea or engage another person can greatly affect how successful the conversation is.