"Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It" by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz is not marketed as a parenting guide. Voss worked as a hostage negotiator, often dealing with life or death situations. However, Voss is the first to admit that negotiating is an essential part of life for all of us, whether we are asking for a raise or trying to get our children out of the house on time.
His tips work to help people understand each other's views better, therefore opening up the path for successful negotiations. Most of us will never be in a high stakes situation where someone's life is on the line, but knowing how to apply negotiation skills can make daily interactions easier.
Skeptics of negotiation may prejudge these techniques as manipulative. Never split the difference means don't compromise, and how can that ever work in parenting unless we're dictators lording our authority over our children? It works because Voss' techniques are exactly the kind of results-based, tried-and-true approaches that can improve relationships. They acknowledge that emotions, not logic or reason, often guide decision making, something any parent who has ever survived the toddler years can attest to.
Voss says "Negotiation is the heart of collaboration," and having partners to collaborate with is a much more positive experience than having a tiny village to be dictator over. Negotiating means coming to a true understanding of a child's point of view and then working from that place. Using these approaches will give parents an edge.
Voss describes tactical empathy as "emotional intelligence on steroids." Besides trying to see the world from another person's view to understand his feelings, tactical empathy also means being committed to finding out what is "behind those feelings" according to Voss. He believes this is how we can truly affect the outcome of the situation at hand.
Tactical empathy does not mean a parent has to agree with a child's point of view. A child may feel he is justified in hitting his sibling because a verbal argument took an unfortunate turn. A parent isn't responsible for agreeing with that. The parent is just responsible for trying to understand in that moment what the child's perspective was and the emotion that led to the encounter.
Doing that means the parent has a way to influence the child's view of the behavior because the parent is listening and dealing with the child's feelings. Parents earn trust this way, and then they can influence behavior.
Empathy is a non-combative way to handle problems, which is preferred by most parents. However, those who grew up with harder tactics being used on them may feel like they are being weak when using empathy to understand instead of just authority to punish.
However, empathy is considered a powerful tool in all human interactions by many, including "The Zen Leader" author Ginny Whitelaw. It's a soft skill, but that doesn't mean weak. It works better than brute force in most cases and can build a relationship instead of weaken it.
Tactical empathy helped Voss get three fugitives to surrender after a six-hour standoff, so surely it can help us convince our kids to put their clothes in the laundry basket.
Label the feeling
Feelings can be big, scary things for adults, so imagine what they are like for kids. Being frustrated, angry, or scared puts a child on edge, and that can mean not even having the language to define what emotion is being felt. That's what makes labeling so powerful.
Labeling an emotion brings it out in the open and makes it manageable. If we can talk about it, we can handle it, so after practicing tactical empathy and putting yourself in your child's shoes, label the emotion. This may mean saying:
"It seems like you are angry that your brother made fun of you."
"It sounds like you are scared of not knowing what to expect at school."
"It looks like you are anxious about trying something new."
By putting the feeling out there and letting kids agree or disagree with our assessment, we allow them to elaborate on what they are going through. We prove that feelings can be talked about safely. A parent can understand how a child feels, and that makes the entire experience less isolating.
Take note: Voss warns that labeling should never start with the word "I." "I" is a me-focused word and can cause people to instinctively raise their guards. "I" is also not neutral. If a parent labels an emotion incorrectly, it's easier to back up and try again if "I" hasn't been used since "I" implies ownership of the label. Simply saying "it seems" offers an observing instead of a judging point of view.
Aim for these two words
It's nice when our kids tell us we're right, but rarely does that mean any positive change is going to occur. Voss says telling somebody they are right is often just a way to stroke their ego while also getting them to leave us alone. According to Voss, the game changer phrase is "that's right."
When we use negotiation strategies correctly and empathize while also labeling, we help kids figure out how they feel. We guide them to making their way to the real problem. When we do this, we can then repeat back to them what the real issue is, such as:
"It seems like you don't want to take swim lessons even though you love the pool because you are afraid you're going to fail."
The child says "that's right," and they now realize what the true problem is. They aren't scared of drowning or meeting new people during swim class. They just really don't want to look like an idiot who can't learn to swim.
This is a major breakthrough. By naming the problem and acknowledging what it truly is, they can now be a part of the problem solving. Sometimes just realizing what the real issue is helps kids move forward.
It's easier said than done, but getting through a sticky situation with an uncooperative child works best when a parent stays patient. Voss says that in the worst of situations, not losing control is key. So how do we do that when kids seem to know just how to push our buttons?
One way is to ask calibrated questions. Calibrated questions are open-ended, and Voss recommends they start with how or what.
A favorite hobby of one of my four-year-old daughters is to ask for food items that we don't have. She asks for a banana, I say we don't have any, and she loses her mind. This is usually followed closely by me losing mine.
Voss believes that if I instead stop and ask a calibrated question we might both come out of this skirmish unscathed.
Examples that could work are:
"How am I supposed to feed you a banana right now?"
"What can I do to fix this problem?"
Asking her how puts the problem solving directly back onto her shoulders, offering her the ability to see things from a different point of view. It also gives me time to calm down before my entire day is compromised by bananas, or a lack thereof.
Tone of voice is key when asking calibrated questions. We're inviting our kids to be problem solvers with us, so we don't want our tone of voice to convey anger that will add fire to their distress.
Learning along the way
Implementing these techniques takes work. It can feel unnatural at first, but once results are seen, it's easier to commit for the long haul. I found that out one morning when I used calibrated questions on one of my kids to diffuse a tantrum, and it worked. She stopped crying, tried to solve the problem on her own, realized there were some insurmountable obstacles to her request and moved on. I simply asked the right questions the right way using Voss' advice.
Using these techniques helps us parent, but it also teaches our kids to problem solve. At some point, they will hopefully be able to internalize this process, looking at situations from other people's points of view to work through problem solving. We won't be hostages to their big feelings, and they won't be either.