negotiating with children

3 Ways to Negotiate with Children from a Master FBI Negotiator

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Negotiating with children is part of fatherhood.

Everything is a negotiation, especially with kids. Comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes that his youngest daughter acts as the ring leader for his other four kids and turns bedtime into a hostage negotiation. Reluctantly, Gaffigan caves and gives in to their demands as long as they go to sleep. It’s humorous and true. Negotiating with children is part of fatherhood. And sometimes, we have to negotiate with our kids to regain some of our sleep. 

I took a MasterClass with former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss and learned some techniques I tried with my daughter. Here is how to masterfully negotiate with your kids. 

1. Mirroring

Mirroring is about collecting information by repeating back one to three words your child says—and doing it in the form of a question. It particularly works well in confrontational conversations because it puts kids at ease and makes them feel heard. Your son asks, “Can I go to Jimmy’s party?” You say, “Jimmy’s party?” He responds, “Yeah, Jimmy’s throwing a party at the beach next weekend.” You say, “At the beach?” He says, “Jimmy’s grandparents have a beach house they are lending him to celebrate his graduation.” You say, “Graduation?” You’ve found out Jimmy is a senior while your son is still a sophomore. Now you know having your son attend the party is not a good idea, but you need to get him to conclude that on his own. So when negotiating with children, you have to mirror them because mirroring requires your children to listen to their own rationale. Having to explain what they want in detail allows you to pick the right follow-up questions that get them to think critically about a decision. Mirroring helps you get your children talking and ultimately thinking about what they really want.

2. Labeling

Emotions are always part of negotiations. It’s worth celebrating when your children label their own feelings. The moment the emotion is labeled, it triggers the brain to defuse that emotion. When labeling for them, what you say starts one of these ways: “It seems like, looks like, sounds like, feels like…” Let’s say your 5-year-old refuses to eat her dinner unless you tell her a story. She is trying to negotiate with you. If you flat out say no, her emotions take over since she doesn’t feel in control. But if you use a label and say, “It sounds like you enjoy stories,” you defuse any adverse emotional reaction and decrease resistance to your offer of telling a story after she eats her dinner. If she does become upset, label it: “It sounds like you are angry.” You may need a few labels to defuse the tension entirely. Emotional labels build relationships and increase trust-based influence, which is what you want as a parent.  

3. Replacing Why with How and What

Voss says people prefer to be asked “what” questions rather than “why” questions. “Why” triggers a universal defense mechanism and “what” makes other people feel like they are in control, even when they’re not. If you are trying to get your son to clean his room, don’t say, “Why don’t you go clean your room?” Instead, ask, “What can you do to clean up your room in the next 10 minutes?” Or “How can I help you make cleaning your room a daily habit?” These questions ultimately help shape your child’s thinking. 

Sound off: What else helps you succeed when you’re negotiating with children?

Huddle up with your kids and try one of these techniques.