From the Mouths of Babes: Get Everything You Want by Learning How to Negotiate Like a Child

Published: May 22, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By AMA Staff

They’re the best negotiators in the world. They’re stubborn, determined and manipulative; they can outmaneuver the savviest attorney and they almost always get what they want. Who are these pit bulls of the negotiation universe? Those little darlings are commonly known as children—and if you’ve ever spent any time with them, you know that kids are experts at cajoling, arguing and conning people to get their way.

In his slightly tongue-in-cheek new book How to Negotiate Like a Child: Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get EVERYTHING You Want (AMACOM, 2006), Bill Adler identifies 45 tried-and-true negotiating strategies that have worked for kids since the beginning of time and explains how they can be adapted from the playground to the workplace. For example:

  • Throw a Tantrum
  • Just Cry
  • Pretend You Don’t Hear or Understand What the Other Side Is Saying
  • Take Your Ball and Go Home
  • Let the Other Guy Think He’s Won
  • Play One Side Against the Other
  • Change the Subject
  • Keep Coming Back to the Same Question

If any of the above tactics sound familiar, chances are you’re either a parent who has been expertly manipulated by your offspring or an employee who has been worked over by a savvy co-worker (perhaps someone who has read Adler’s book). Why not gain a competitive advantage by learning how to unleash your own “inner brat?”

Here are some highlights from Adler’s chapter entitled “Pretend You Don’t Hear or Understand What the Other Side Is Saying":
“This is one of the most ancient, yet least known, child-negotiating techniques. Children apply this technique in one of two ways: They pretend either not to understand or not to hear. In escalating tones, the child says:  ‘What? What? WHAT!?’  Eventually, the other kids give up trying to argue for what they want. In frustration, they accept the fact that the child just doesn’t get it.”

The businessperson’s version of “What, What, What!?” is to ask for more clarification from the other side. That may involve asking to see some examples, or your requiring a tour of the other company’s factory to meet some frontline workers, etc.

Adler provides a few pointers on how to apply this negotiation technique:

  • Use it selectively. Pretending not to hear is ideally suited to dealing with people you’re never going to have to work with again. Inside your own company, it could leave you with a reputation for not listening or being too obtuse to understand a problem. Never being available to an outside party is fine, provided you’re sure that the outside party really has nothing to offer you and would just be wasting your time.
  • Make gaining control of timing your goal. Pretending you don’t understand what the other side wants or is saying also works well as a means to postpone negotiations until you’re ready. In that case the purpose is to control the timing to your benefit. This isn’t a negotiating technique that you can always use, but it’s something that if used well, with necessary subtlety, can reap tremendous benefits.
  • Use it to turn the tables on your negotiating opponent (including your boss). Pretending not to hear or understand is one way to prevent your boss from overloading you with work that you can’t do alone or might not be able to do to the standard required. Instead of objecting immediately to an assignment, ask for clarification of each part of the assignment. Ask the boss to go over every aspect of each task and how it should be performed. She may be forced to reevaluate the assignment or else provide you with additional resources. By asking questions and demanding clarification, you make clear that the assignment is problematic from the outset. If you’re the boss, you can still turn things to your advantage if you take a few extra steps to make sure that everyone knows you have explained the instructions clearly. You can even go as far as having a written memo signed by the person who’s pretending not to understand.

Adler’s book ends on a positive, inspirational note, with a chapter entitled “Optimism Rules,” where he points out that “Without understanding what the essence of childhood is, these techniques are just tricks and gimmicks…Memorizing these techniques isn’t what negotiating like a child is really about.” Instead, Adler recommends that adults reach back in time to reconnect with the positive power of their own childhoods: optimism, energy, spontaneity, a sense of adventure and the ability to look at the world in new ways. Here are a few ways to get that experience:

  • Spend more time with children. If you don’t have your own children, borrow some from friends or relatives. Take them someplace that’s fun for you and for them. Hang back and watch and listen. Take note of how they negotiate.
  • Allow playfulness back into your life. Play games. Reread a favorite book from your childhood. Listen to the songs you grew up loving and used to play over and over.
  • Look at familiar things in new ways. Retain your childlike curiosity about the world. Look at the world from the perspective that there’s going to be something new to learn. Ask questions, not just because you want to gain an advantage, but because it’s good to know things.
  • Use your imagination. This will help you think on your feet, improvise and develop brand-new solutions to difficult problems, all of which will give you a great advantage over your negotiating opponents.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.