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Throughout my career, I’ve been a student of negotiation. In addition to reading a range of books and articles, I even took a course on negotiation from the former COO of the New England Patriots while I was at Harvard Business School. All of this learning pales in comparison to what I’ve learned as the father of a two-year-old.
Although she lacks formal training, I’ve been astonished by how effective my daughter Samantha is at the negotiating table. Relying on gut instinct, she has come up with several approaches that don’t appear in most conventional negotiation toolkits. In particular, there are three elements of her approach that are noteworthy and may be applicable to a more conventional business negotiation.
1. Use time to your advantage.
Toddlers are very crafty with their use of time. Time means nothing to a toddler, but parents have things to do. Case in point: My wife and I were recently feeding our daughter dinner. We wanted Samantha to diversify her eating habits, so we gave her a new noodle dish to eat. She refused to eat it. We were in a standoff.
Time was not on our side, and we faced two constraints: First, we didn’t want to sit there forever waiting for her to eat. Second, we didn’t want to put her to bed without food because that would increase the likelihood that she’d wake early in the morning, which would mean we’d have to wake early too. Samantha faced no such constraints. She could wait forever. And by choosing to wait, she put the burden on our shoulders to solve her problem.
We ultimately gave her the new pasta along with broccoli, which she loves. She used time to push us toward a position that was more attractive to her.
The takeaway for businesses is that understanding how time impacts various parties in a negotiation can give you valuable leverage.
2. Be strategically unyielding.
Most of the time when my daughter refuses to compromise or is being difficult, there’s an immediate downside for her. For instance, she might not get something that she wants, like a cracker. However, occasionally she’ll make a relentless request, such as going to the park while we’re out running errands, and refuse to drop it.
I can’t always say yes to these requests. There also aren’t always immediate negative consequences that I can leverage to prevent her from angrily insisting that we go to the park. From her perspective, the worst I’m likely to do is say no, in which case she’ll punish me with a tantrum. (Threatening not to give her something hours in the future — like a cracker after dinner — doesn’t seem to work well at this age.)
This dynamic incentivizes me to come up with something I can offer her instead of going to the park — like promising her an apple after we run our errands. (She loves apples.) In essence, her unyielding behavior leads me to consider giving her something she wouldn’t have received otherwise.
The learning here is that in certain business negotiations, being strategically unyielding can push your negotiating partner to try to come up with an alternative solution to your problem.
3. Employ tactical silence.
My daughter has mastered the tactic of choosing one’s playing field. A great example of this is bath time. Samantha doesn’t like to take baths, but we obviously have to give her regular baths. Here’s how this plays out:
Often, before dinner, I’ll walk her through the game plan for the night. The conversation usually goes as follows: “Sam, we’re going to eat dinner in 10 minutes. Afterward, we’ll play for a bit, then we’ll take a bath and then go to bed. Would you like some pasta for dinner?”
“Yes!” comes the jubilant response.
“All right, and you’re going to be good when we have our bath, right?”
Her goal is to delay or avoid taking a bath. She refuses to engage on the question of whether she’ll behave because doing so wouldn’t serve her interests.
Instead, she employs tactical silence. She’ll wait until bath time to put up a fight. At that point, arguing strenuously against a bath may delay it by a few minutes and, very occasionally, could prevent it altogether if we’re in a rush to get her to bed.
The important takeaway for businesses here is that at least two parties are necessary for a negotiation. If delay serves you better than negotiating now, then delay. Wait until the timing is right to negotiate.
All three of these tactics can be powerfully applied in a range of business negotiations. As an aside, not all of a two-year-old’s negotiating tactics are worth emulating. While my daughter’s exceptional cuteness and hugs can drive positive results for her, I don’t recommend putting those tactics to work in business negotiations. Also, imitating the angry tantrums and temporary irrationality that sporadically grip many toddlers can disrupt the trust that you want to build over the course of most business negotiations.
The negotiating tactics of active listening and strategic empathy also have a great deal of value. However, my daughter lacks these skill sets almost entirely and still manages to be a formidable negotiating partner when she sits on the other side of her very small table. The next time you read a book by someone who spent decades researching or practicing negotiation, think about what a two-year-old would do, and know that there’s always more to learn.
December 21, 2018 at 08:13AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs