I recently heard a podcast interview with the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator, Chris Voss. He gave great insight into how to negotiate with someone who is acting irrationally, emotional, and aggressively. While listening to the podcast, I realized I face this every day with toddlers. I researched him online to learn more about his methods. When you think FBI and hostages, you think aggressive, but it is actually the gentleness of this approach that makes it effective.
Here’s my breakdown of his process and my experiences with some short members of the family.
Persuade your Toddler like an FBI hostage Negotiator
Step one: Listen with the mindset of discovery
Sometimes they make you so angry. I really struggle to hold myself in when they fight with each other. I even have a hard time when they just ask for fruit snacks constantly. When negotiating though, you have to compartmentalize that anger by focusing on the other party. Don’t search for flaws, think about rules, or try to get what you want to happen. Instead, try to discover what is going on inside of them. Do they feel cheated? Is something frustrating them?
Use acknowledgement words like “u-huh” and “yeah” and make eye contact to let them know you are paying attention. Ask a couple follow-up questions as makes sense so they know you are listening. The more they tell you about what is going on, the more relaxed they are and the more power they transfer to you.
Step two: Connect
People love to be understood, but hate to be told “I understand”. Your job here is to have them conclude that you understand. Summarize what they said back to them and ask if you got it right. The goal here is to get them to say “That’s right”. This method breaks through their barriers and displays empathy.
Another powerful connecting tool is to label the emotion you discovered in step one. Make sure to use words like “seems”, “sounds”, “looks”, etc so you can gently guide instead of threaten their control. “It sounds like this is making you sad” is better than “you are sad aren’t you?”
Step three: Guide them to their own conclusion
Once they feel like you understand, you’ve earned yourself the ability to influence their decision. You need to be careful here so that they maintain the illusion of control. If you start just trying to convince them you are right, you will loose. Instead ask them gentle calibrated questions. They have to be the one to reach the conclusion and when they do, you need to praise them for the great idea.
Start with “no”. The reason why “no” is more powerful than “yes” is because “no” makes them feel in control, where as “yes” is you asking for commitment. 2 year-olds love to say “no”.
Ask questions that benefit you with the answer “no”. For example, today my son peed his pants and it ran into his shoes. He really wanted to wear those shoes, but I wanted to wash them. I asked him if he “wanted pee on his shoes”. You have to be very careful in your wording, because toddlers are very strong-willed and emotional. Had I asked if he “wanted to wear shoes with pee on them”, he probably would have said “yes” and I would have lost some footing (pun unintended). I could then follow-up with “does it feel better when your shoes have pee on them?” I essence, I’m getting him to agree with me by disagreeing.
Once you’ve set your foundation, let them run a little. Ask open-ended questions and get back to listening. “How can I do that?” and “Why is that important to you” questions are powerful. In the peed shoes scenario I could say: “Why do you want to wear those shoes?” and “How can I get them clean so you can be comfortable again?”
Step four: Praise their (your) conclusion and act immediately
Chances are, they will come up with a brilliant idea such as “you could wash it!” at which point you let your eyes light up and say “that’s a great idea!” and if you are confident that they will follow the new path, “Would you like to wear your brown shoes while they dry?” otherwise, just help them get their shoes off and let them realize they don’t want squishy wet shoes after it is too late and work your negotiations from there.
As you complete the steps, throw in fast, loving, smiles. It lets them know that you like them and are actually working with them. If you can get them to smile back, you’ve won and the other steps should go pretty fast.
If at any point they get too worked up, it’s time to slow them down. Switch to what Chris calls your “late night DJ voice”. Space your words with breaks and use upward inflections (like asking a question) on all segments except the last. State your basic problem like, “I don’t?… hold kids?… that are whining”. The slower you can do it naturally, the better.
This method is great for persuading and helping them see a better mindset, but it doesn’t necessarily create action. Today I helped my daughter decide she wanted to clean up her stuffed animals. Unfortunately, she picked up a few and got distracted renaming each of them and didn’t get a single one put away. Toddler focuses can only go so far.
These aren’t Chris Voss methods, but I thought I’d add a couple more tricks I’ve got up my mommy sleeves.
“While” = the most persuasive word for action
Toddlers are still figuring time, cause/ effect, and sequencing out. It is a challenge for them to think past the here and now. It is hard for them to walk away from a cake to wash their hands even if they know they can’t have any until their hands are clean.
Instead of trying to explain it better, up the rewards, or threaten consequences, just let them know what you will be doing to help them WHILE they are doing their part. Say, “I’ll cut you a slice of cake while you go wash your hands”, pick up the knife, look at them, wait until they make a move to go, then immediately start cutting. If they stop for any reason, stop the cutting to look at them inquiringly. They don’t always have to be getting a fancy reward, you can say, “I’ll pick up the blocks while you pick up the books” or even “go get your jacket while I tie my shoes” so they know you aren’t going outside without them.
Kids perform for games
If you’ve seen Mary Poppins, you know “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” Games can be races: “Who can get their pajamas on first?” They can be challenges: “who can scrub their section really clean?” They can be pushing an empty laundry basket around filling it with toys to dump into the toy box (tractor noises are a bonus). They can be whatever you make exciting.
The podcast scroll down to “The Art of Negotiation” on 29 April 2017. I apologize for all the annoying commercials.
His book: Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It– by Chris Voss
Good luck with your little
terrorists precious ones!