Published: September 2023
Written by: Adam Myron
If you’ve ever tried to get a six-year-old to eat vegetables, you know that children can be masterful negotiators. I know I’ve had the following conversation many times:
“You have to eat all your carrots and broccoli. No ice cream until you do.”
“I can eat all that. I’ll eat three carrots and two pieces of broccoli.”
“Fine, just eat already.”
“And I want two scoops of ice cream.”
“Don’t push your luck…”
Everyone’s interests are met in these negotiations. Here, my interest in ensuring my child eats vegetables is met, even if it comes at the cost of replacing a few vegetables with a little ice cream. My child’s interests in getting dessert and not eating too many vegetables are met, at the mere cost of having to eat a few vegetables. Everyone is a winner.
The frequency of such negotiations with my own children got me wondering: How do some human beings develop effective negotiation skills at an early age? Fully answering that question would likely require a much more complicated and lengthy discussion than the space limitations of this article will allow. However, I suspect that at least part of the answer lies in the fact that the stories, fables, and parables that parents and other caregivers tell children include morals and lessons that mirror the foundational principles upon which effective negotiations are built. Consider the following examples.
In The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a mischievous child tasked with notifying neighbors of threats to the village gets a good laugh by sounding multiple false alarms of “wolf” until the day that an actual wolf appears and no one believes his cries to be true. The result: happy wolf; not so happy boy. Through this story, children learn the importance of building and maintaining trust, a key ingredient to an effective negotiation. It may seem obvious, but if you fail to build trust with your negotiating partner (I use the term negotiating “partner” because I believe it’s counterproductive to think of that person as an adversary), you are much less likely to achieve as good of a negotiated outcome as you would have achieved if your partner had confidence in the accuracy and veracity of the information and perspectives you conveyed during the negotiation.
In The Tortoise and the Hare, a steady and persistent tortoise wins a footrace against an overeager and easily distracted hare. The morals embedded in The Tortoise and the Hare are useful to remember at the negotiating table because negotiating is an arduous task. It can take a lot of time, and it works best when the parties are focused and do not rush.
In The Lion and the Mouse, the king of the jungle steps on a thorn. He roars and howls with pain until a mouse, who could easily take advantage of the situation by leaving the lion to his misery, instead pulls the thorn from the lion’s paw. Through an act of kindness, the mouse gains a powerful lifelong friend. The Lion and the Mouse teaches children the values of trust, empathy, and compassion. When those values are put into practice during the negotiation process, negotiators are better able to understand perspectives that differ from their own; and, by putting themselves in the shoes of their negotiating partners, they can better understand the interests and incentives that will facilitate better-negotiated outcomes.
The Lion and the Mouse also serves as an excellent example of how to overcome a cognitive bias known as the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to explain other people’s behavior by placing too much emphasis on internal dispositional factors and too little emphasis on external situational factors. In the story, the mouse has to overcome the urge to ascribe the lion’s roaring to a fierce aggressive disposition and consider that the lion’s behavior was the result of some external cause (specifically, stepping on a thorn). Resisting that urge opened a pathway to compassion and empathy, which resulted in a positive outcome for both the lion and the mouse.
We navigate life by constantly negotiating. Sometimes, negotiations are with other people (how do you and I resolve our conflict?), sometimes they’re with the environment (how do I get from point A to point B?), and sometimes they’re with ourselves (how will I reward myself later for hard work I do now?). Often, we negotiate with those to whom we owe the greatest duty of care: the next generation of children who one day will be the stewards of the planet. So although it might result in a few less vegetables and a little more ice cream eaten at suppertime, I’m still glad that the fables and stories we tell children are grounded in principles for future success.
Adam Myron is an attorney with the law firm of Cagnet Myron Law, P.A., where, as a Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Mediator and a Florida Qualified Arbitrator, he focuses a large part of his practice on alternative dispute resolution. Adam is also a civil litigator in the fields of complex business litigation, trust & estate litigation, and professional liability litigation. You can email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org and learn more about him by visiting https://cagnetmyronlaw.com/about/attorneys/adam-myron/.
For additional ADR tips and resources, go to https://www.palmbeachbar.org/alternative- dispute-resolution-committee/.