28 mar If you can negotiate with a teenager, you can negotiate with anyone
If you can negotiate with a teenager, you can negotiate with anyone
Making agreements that your kids will want to keep can make your life (a little) easier
When I was a teenager I was caught going to a party I wasn’t supposed to be going to. My parents had come home earlier than expected and found out that I had gone dancing in the city, which was definitely not OK with them. When I got home, very late, they let me slink into bed, but told me in no uncertain terms that we would have to have a serious talk in the morning. Waking up I had the blackest of consciences and I felt awful, and it didn’t help that my sister was looking at me with pity, quietly shaking her head. I knew that I had violated my parents’ trust and even my fuzzy teenage brain could work out that it had been rather foolish to go out in the middle of the night at my tender age. Sitting down at my bedside, I’m sure they saw how guilty I felt and how sorry I was to have lied to them. Perhaps they even laughed at my tragic expression and penitent look. At this point, my parents could have scolded me, grounded me for weeks and withdrawn all privileges as punishment. But instead they negotiated with me. Knowing that whatever restrictions they might lay on me, being a teenager chances were that my guilty conscience would eventually wear off, my sense of invulnerability resurface and I was very likely to then try to slip out of my bedroom (groundfloor) window again, reasoning that what they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them, right? So, instead we made a deal. I was allowed to go into town to party, if I promised to tell them about it, be back by a reasonable time and always being in the company of one of my best friends – a big gentle guy they trusted would keep me out of trouble.
It struck me even then, how my parents did a clever thing by involving me in the solving of a pressing problem: keeping their daughter safe but also dealing with fairly normal teenage rebelliousness and serious lack of judgment. They didn’t try to convince me that what I had done was wrong (I sort of knew this, but knowing it is not the same as making a teenage brain adjust). Instead, they tried to find a way forward that would also accommodate some of my wishes. It can’t have been easy for them, but I remember this as one of the first times I realized how lucky I was to have parents that really cared about me and who I was, that really could see me, even if what they saw was a ridiculously but also dangerously self-confident teenager who liked to go dancing.
My parents didn’t realise they were negotiating. They simply tried to solve a problem, but they did so with the right amount of respect for me, and this is the essence of genuine negotiation. They could have tried to convince me to behave in a different way, but anyone who has ever been in contact with teenagers will know, that this is as likely to happen as a teenager volunteering to do the laundry and cook dinner. They made their own lives easier and less stressful by making an agreement that I was likely to honour and give them a chance to sleep at night without worrying where I might be sneaking off to. They also didn’t have to spend a lot of time controlling me, telling me off and listing all the endless arguments for why I had to stay at home, knowing full well from the glazed-over expression on my face and my tightly crossed arms that I was probably not ‘taking it all in’. They avoided the most common mistake we make when we try to organize our lives with each other: to convince the other person that they are wrong, that they should stop doing what they are doing and become more like us. Don’t get me wrong; of course parents should educate their kids, show them what is right and wrong, having the courage to say an unequivocal ‘no’ to their children and set boundaries for their behavior. But if there is the slightest possibility to accommodate just a few of their ideas and urges when trying to find a way out of a dead-end, then chances are that everyone will be better off. It won’t eliminate rows or heated discussions about dirty clothes on the floor and half-eaten sandwiches under the bed, but for the important questions concerning their education and overall behaviour, negotiation will be a better way to move forward together than laying down the law.
If you are able to make agreements that actually work with your teenager, allowing them to have some say in what will happen however crazy it seems to you, then you will be able to negotiate with anyone. The essence of making balanced, respectful deals is being able to acknowledge how we all have different needs and wants, but also to see that the one thing we all must have is the possibility to influence the agreements, that affect our lives. Truly listening to others explaining how they see the world differently is always a challenge, and if the other is an ungrateful and hugely over-self-confident teenager as I was, it can feel almost impossible. But try. And make deals with them where you keep them safe, and they get to dance the night away.
Tell me your story and I will tell you why you are a great negotiator
It’s Friday morning and I’m in the middle of an interview for a podcast about women and negotiation. Two very friendly, clever and highly committed women have taken it upon themselves to interview a range of people about particular issues concerning gender equality in the workplace. As I speak, I notice one of them smiling to herself and I wonder, if I said something funny? “Well, it’s just that I think I have probably made all the mistakes you just mentioned” The interview started, as they often do when we talk about gender and negotiation, with looking at some of the pitfalls and the classic mistakes we all make, particularly when negotiating on our own behalf; being too modest in our demands and reducing our proposals before we even get started, or getting angry and personally offended when we get a resounding ‘no’ to our requests, just to mention a few. “I always try to find a realistic level for my demands, but I see now that this will give me so much less room to maneuver and cheat the other person of the pleasure of making me offer concessions!” She smiles and shakes her head, and makes a mental note to start with the ambitious version of her wishes and wants the next time she negotiates with a client.
As we move on, we get to the best part: how to deal with the classic obstacles in negotiations on your own behalf? As I list the helpful strategies of spending time preparing the negotiation and influencing the other, communicating in the constructive manner of asking relevant questions, finding many possible solutions, respecting the other person’s story and keeping a focus on the issues and not on egos, her smile broadens once again. “But I actually do all these things already!” and this is an incredibly important realization. Now it’s my turn to smile because I know that this young woman has truly learnt something, not only from her mistakes but from her successes. But we had to dig deep and talk at length about what works in negotiation, before she began to see herself as an accomplished negotiator. Not an infallible one, no one is, but someone with a whole range of tools she already uses and can now use strategically.
One of the very best things about being a negotiation advisor is to help others see, that they are in fact much better negotiators than they often think. Particularly women need to understand, that the skills you should be cultivating as a negotiator are ones that are, in fact, typically associated with how women communicate and work. Being an empathetic person, who takes an interest in others, also when they don’t agree. Being creative and consistently looking for solutions that will work for all. Being less concerned with boosting her own ego and more focused on moving the process along and constructing the agreement. These and other traits that we have been conditioned to think of as ‘feminine’ are in fact invaluable skills for all negotiators, men as well as women.
So even if you think a negotiation didn’t go as you expected, maybe you didn’t get what you were hoping for, then the experience will also without a doubt contain a lot ‘right moves’, that you can use again. And again. Because negotiating on your own behalf is an ongoing business. Using the skills you already have and adding some knowledge about the obstacles a lot of women also face, then you will become even better at doing what you already do well.