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Negotiating Isn’t Child’s Play

By JB Shelton

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You were born with the ability to negotiate. Although negotiating isn’t child’s play in the sense of being purely easy and fun, the innate talents you used for your earliest communications will take you far in your adult negotiations. Free yourself from the series of acts inherent in the serious business of negotiating.

Consider the Time-Out

A misbehaving child is confined to a private spot to quietly think about her misbehavior. When the time-out times out, she exchanges an apology for a hug. The procedure has merit, even if the participants are midlife crisis, not pre-kindergarten age. An hour break may be all both sides need to recoup and reconsider why their negotiation isn’t flowing smoothly. Handshakes not hugs are recommended.

Win at Under-the-table Gamesmanship

As a volunteer elementary school reading teacher, I’m often faced with a group of four or five children who display differing aptitudes and attitudes toward learning to read. Inevitably, one of the youngsters cannot or will not resist disrupting and distracting the others. A six-year-old boy throws a pencil under the school library table and jumps down to retrieve it.

The ego-massage-questing executive expounds on topics unrelated to the negotiation. He may even pre-arrange interruptive phone calls requiring his immediate attention and expertise.

The negotiating key is making these insecure individuals the centers of attention before they misbehave. As soon as the tutoring group arrives, I tell the young man he is in charge of keeping his classmates well behaved.

As the meeting begins, praise the executive for his abilities to keep everyone focused on the matters under discussion.


When Evan, age nine, led me to the electronics department of a major chain store, he knew exactly what he wanted. ‘It’s educational,’ he announced, pointing to a multimedia contraption priced at $99. His face said it all: If you love me, dear godmom, you’ll buy it for me. Keeping emotionality out of negotiations (although I do love him) is always best.

We power-walked across the megastore to the food department. I asked Evan to stand up straight and hold his arms out. He looked puzzled: Keeping your opponent puzzled is a good negotiating technique. As I reached into the food locker and took out box after box of his favorite school lunch (the kind that’s fun to eat and holds more nutrition in the cardboard box than its contents), I convinced Evan to balance 30 boxes. His eyes peered out from the array, questioning my purpose. ‘Evan,’ I explained, ‘those 30 days worth of lunch cost the same amount as this ‘educational’ toy.’ We restocked the lunches and power-walked back to electronics. Evan grinned as he chose a nine-dollar robot designed to hone his programming skills.

…and Tell

If a picture tells a thousand words, a site visit to the building you’re negotiating to purchase will give both you and the owner a reality-based (instead of boardroom PowerPointed) look, feel and reaction to details. Getting out of the electronics department shown above or escaping from the official venue provides not just a physical change, but a head-clearing emotional one as well. Back in the boardroom, tell that other fellow what you saw has locked in your determination and provide the specifics about how the experience solidified your expectations.

Confuse Them With Kindness

Even a toddler will quickly learn that the more he asks, the more he can expect to receive. Adults play the numbers, too, in negotiations. At all ages, requesting items you don’t really want or need in a long list of requests allows you to be the gentleperson, seeming to be cooperative and reasonable as you let the other person ‘convince’ you to give in, time after time. Follow the toddler comfortably carted around the supermarket, loudly asking for whatever non-nutritious goody he passes; you’ll recognize him at the checkout counter, when the dad who persistently turned him down finally buys him a bag of candy.

Consider the church choir director, who presents dozens of pieces of sheet music at the first rehearsal before Easter. Imagine the choir members’ relief as they ‘convince’ her which hymns and anthems they can’t possibly learn before the blessed season. Does she succeed thanks to her negotiating skills or is it a higher power looking after her? You decide. ***

JB Shelton is a freelance journalist based in Raleigh and Oxford, North Carolina. She writes about children growing up and grownups reinventing themselves. JB teaches ‘Reinvent Yourself in Writing’ at Duke University in Durham, NC. JB Shelton may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Copyright © 2012 JB Shelton
Copyright ©   2012  The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  (February, 2012)