Five reasons children make great negotiators.
Think like a kid. This is the advice I frequently give to clients and students who are stuck on a deal going nowhere, advice which is usually met with chuckles, wry smiles or curiosity.
But is it really that farfetched an idea? Truly, parents and children (when not in the throws of pressure), are typically my model negotiators because their success rate (in terms of mutually beneficial outcomes) is high. Most times, both parties (i.e the parent and the child) will eventually reach a "good-enough" outcome.
It's true. If you’re a parent or teacher, or if your friends have any kids, you know instantly what I mean. Children are natural-born masters at negotiating for optimal results. They are unrelenting in their aims. Giving up is not something that comes to them naturally.
Think about it: when was the last time you had to trade something to get your child to go to bed, eat certain foods, walk the dog, or stop pummelling their little brother? In all cases, did they just casually do as you asked? Of course not….ok, in some cases, perhaps yes, if tired or bored. But in other cases, if they could remotely sense weakness or lack of resolve on your side…Bang!...they were in there, with laser-like focus, offering up all manner of creative “tradeables” in exchange for the thing they wanted.
And yet, who is the grown-up? Who is the seasoned business leader, the highly-skilled teacher, the expertly-trained engineer, the unflappable nurse? Even the mightiest of adults have been known to crumble.
And children will always be better.
1. They still have a healthy level of self-centredness
Research has shown that between the ages of 2-4, children have started to identify emotions in others. By the age of 6, most children can both recognize and process those basic emotions well enough to form a level of empathy/emotional understanding about what is going on. And by the age of 8, most children are able to grapple with more complex levels of emotion and empathy and have started to provide support for the other person's feelings (such as sympathy or commiseration). This is the perfect age for mastering negotiation because the childhood ego is still young enough to cling on to their self interests while navigating and interpreting the emotions of the other party (usually a parent) in a way that is so adaptive as to influence and boomerang the negotiated item back to the child's primary focus (which is to attain the thing being negotiated - whether another treat at dinner or to stay up late for a favourite TV program) to their advantage.
2. They maintain unrelenting focus on their end goal
Following the same vein as point 1 above, children have an almost admirable level of unflinching focus when it comes to something they want. It will take mere seconds for parents reading this to remember an eye-watering encounter of stubbornness. BUT - when channeling that purpose, children have an indefatigable way of flipping through tradeable options in their head to negotiate their position again and again - closer to the target. And their young minds will always make them faster processors, even for the most unrealistic of tradeables - like a far off magical kingdom - they will find a way to sell it to you.
3. They are (mostly) honest, and will happily point out the flaws in your offer without worry of injured feelings (see point 1 above)
This requires little explanation. We've all been in the room when Charlie, surrounded by doting relatives, has asked very loudly, "why is Aunt Mary's face like that?". Sigh. The simple fact is that children have fewer inhibitions. They worry less (if at all) about making mistakes or sounding foolish, a hurdle that makes most adults anxious, and thus they see less issue with sharing naked truths.
4. Their young minds process opportunity faster
The advantage of processing speed sits squarely with young minds when it comes to receiving, and adapting to, the information presented. Research has shown that children are able to learn faster than adults largely owing to a few factors: a) The prefrontal cortex, used primarily for processing executive functions like planning and decision making, isn't fully developed in people until around the age of 25-30. Thus, the still-developing prefrontal cortices in kids means they do not yet have the hindrances of adults’ complex planning and decision-making skills. In short, kids don't have the ability to overthink or over-analyse what's in front of them. In turn, this cognitive flexibility makes them faster learners. b) This benefit is further strengthened by the naturally evolving brain plasticity (neuroplasticity) in children. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to change (by rewiring itself to make new connections and strengthen existing ones) in response to environmental demands. When learning something new, a neuron in the brain is fired. The neuron releases neurotransmitters, which move through tiny gaps (called synapses) to relay messages to other neurons. When connections are established between neurons (new and existing) this forms a neural network of information and knowledge - thus creating a memory. And because of the natural plasticity of children's brains, the speed of neuron transmission (billions of signals in a single moment) is remarkably faster in its processing during childhood.
c) Adults have more learned experiences, which includes memories of fear or embarrassment when getting things wrong. The idea of throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a single aim doesn't feel natural to most adults, precisely because of their learned experiences. And with all the will in the world, those memories (and the feelings they invoke) are forever hard-wired into an adult's neural network library of events and can make it difficult to navigate all potential possibilities of outcome without some hindrance. And by the time we eventually get there, our kids have usually beaten us to the end.
5. They have an uncanny sense of being in the ZOMA (Zone of Mutual Agreement) and thus they know when to stop and accept a good deal.
Again to the point about a child's brain - refer section 4 above. Children's ability to learn and adapt quickly - without the cloak of life experience and worry - allows them to sniff out a good deal as it nears. Their laser-like focus on the net gain (refer point 1) coupled with super-rapid-firing neurons means they will often times know when the "good enough" deal is within reach and the better deal is around the corner. You know what I mean, you can typically see the gears clicking into place by their changing facial expression. Eyes widen. There's a brief pause in chatter. Then a small smile appears. Triumph. Yep, we've all been there.
So what's the take-away? True, some of these factors can't be applied in adults (i.e we can't reverse the plasticity in adult minds), but we can take lessons from a child's approach in two key areas:
#1: Unwavering focus on the end goal. If you've read Jim Collins' stand-out leadership book Good To Great you know that unflinching resolve was one of the factors that lead a select group of CEO's to lead their companies to extraordinary and long-term success. Of course many had set-backs, but it was their steely, unapologetic tenacity to achieve what they set out to do that made them successful. The point here is to not give up. Re-group, adapt, offer meaningful tradeables, and keep going.
#2: Open-mindedness. Children manoeuvre through deal making faster and with less other-thinking (which leads to delay) because they have fewer experiences of loss or disappointment. And over time these feelings can accumulate into bias or skepticism, which can pre-empt less favourable outcomes. Can these feelings be overcome? Life experiences can't be forgotten, but humans are highly adaptable. We can train ourselves to be more flexible and more openminded to outcomes. Curiosity about the other person and authentic rapport building are great ways to achieve that. Try it on your next deal - you'll be pleasantly surprised with where the journey takes you.
Want to learn more? We run monthly drop-in Negotiation Clinics - Get in touch for our latest schedule.
Kelli Wilks is the Founder and Management Consultant at Spring CPO where she teaches negotiation strategies, advises clients on ESG priorities, procurement transformation, and supplier performance.