Negotiating Successfully at Work and then Going Home and Stumbling with your Kids?

The Paradoxes and Parallels of Leadership and Parenting

by Terri R. Kurtzberg, PhD

Adapted from "Negotiating at Home: Essential Steps for Reaching Agreement with your Kids" by Terri R. Kurtzberg and Mary C. Kern, forthcoming in early 2020

“Don’t negotiate with terrorists, toddlers, or teenagers.” This may be a fine statement from the U.S. government’s perspective, but it’s not that practical for parents. On average, parents spend 17,520 minutes every year negotiating with their kids. That’s more than 12 full 24-hour days! Negotiating with kids can feel like stepping into quicksand. It can happen immediately and with little warning, it’s instantly overwhelming, and it’s easy to lose your bearings and find yourself acting in ways you didn’t expect and don’t necessarily like.

People who have been successfully employed for years – individuals who feel empowered to execute multi-million dollar deals, persuade colleagues of ideas, handle conversations about raises and promotions, are still overwhelmed by negotiations with their toddlers or teenagers. Even though these interactions may well require the very same skill set, the know-how that flows freely at work doesn’t seem to easily cross the threshold into the home. For one thing, at work you are interacting with adults, and in a setting in which we all tend to play by the same rules of communication and common courtesy. You won’t necessarily get those same guarantees from your kids. For another, there are actual differences in personal negotiations at home, as opposed to professional ones, which primarily fall into four areas:

Repetition. In negotiations at home, we end up engaging in the same conversations over and over again, and thus may fall into patterns and ruts with the ways that we respond. Emotions and resentments can also build up from one round to the next.

Carry-over. Negotiations at home tend to be more linked to one another, which can feel like a snowballing effect from one situation to the next (across the day, the stage of development, or even the decade). After saying yes to a few things in a row, for instance, you may now resist saying yes to yet another. At work, situations are generally more independent from one another, and tend to have more definite start and end points.

Emotion. In close relationships, we can let ourselves get truly mad in a way we rarely do in other settings. Living closely is bound to create points of friction. At work, you may disagree with a colleague and you may even get upset about the interaction, but for the most part, the problem itself is contained and is task-based.

Multiple agendas. At home, there are always three levels of negotiations going on at the same time.

  • There is the specific issue at hand. What solution will work for both of you?
  • There is the concern for the longer-term effects of the decision itself. Am I setting a problematic precedent here?
  • There is the concern for the longer-term effects on your relationship with your child. Will this decision have spill-over consequences for us? Am I teaching the right lesson and modeling the right behavior?

This is a lot of baggage to add on top of the already-difficult task of negotiating.

Negotiating at home is indeed something of a different animal. There’s no real option of just walking away – you're in it together for the long haul. But a reminder that the same processes that make you successful in your professional life can also serve you well at home can inspire progress. We don’t tend to think of our work selves when at home, but that person might have advice to offer the frustrated-parent side of you. Three steps in particular, borrowed from lessons in the professional setting, can help you stay on track in these moments:

  1. Preparation. Like any successful negotiation, forethought is the single best tool you have. Even when surprised by a negotiation you had not anticipated (as so often happens with kids), taking a moment to assess the needs and stance for each side can keep you focused on the right goals.
  2. Perspective. What is this struggle really about? Is it about the thing your child is loudly demanding, or is there a greater concern that could be alleviated a different way? Are you engaging in a way you’re proud of, or is the moment getting away from you? The ability to discuss the bigger picture and not just argue about the thing can open up new avenues for solutions. Perspective can also be offered by another adult, who can either “tag you out” when you’ve hit the wall, or offer new insight into the struggle itself. Finally, you can also give yourself perspective by picturing this same interaction in a different context. Imagine your child was your colleague or another adult instead. How might you act and react differently? Is there anything you can borrow from those other settings to help in this one?
  3. Protection. There is a list of common tactics that kids use, and forewarned is forearmed about them, just as you eventually know to expect certain questions and mistakes from your subordinates at work. Once you learn to spot them, you can stop them from triggering the wrong responses in you. The heaviest-hitters list includes:
  • Charm/Guilt
  • Playing one parent off the other
  • Threats/Anger/Meltdowns
  • “Everyone else gets to...”
  • Asking over and over and over and over and over and over and over (until you want to lose your mind)

There’s no such thing as a parenting expert. Situations change, you change, and your children change from moment to moment. But a reminder that you do have skills and you can navigate these interactions in a way you proud of – not just for yourself but for the model you’re setting for your kids – can move you out of the quicksand and back to solid ground.

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