How to Negotiate with Children

“I wanna watch TV right now” screams my kid followed by throwing a temper along with any loose items on the table. How do we negotiate when our child’s demands are clear, the threat is real, and there is a timeline: give me what I want or I will continue to destroy your home. 

In this tense situation, your blood boils and you feel forces to pick one of two choices: 1. You pay the ransom: TV turns on and you deal with the cost later 2. You don’t negotiate with terrorists: punish them for trashing the place and deal with the costs later. Both are bad because of the long term costs of 1. They learn that yelling and throwing things is how they get what they want 2. Their relationship with you is harmed because you’re always punishing. 

You my friend have entered into the ticking time bomb of negotiating with your child. Today we’ll explore how the FBI’s chief negotiator Chris Voss tactics in his bestselling book Never Split the Difference can calm children, de-escalate work situations, and deliver family and business success.  

Congratulations for investing in the future of your family today by joining Ai Parenting Live. We’re a judgement free community here to give advice on how to move from screen time to quality time using our motto: don’t sedate, relate to create. Today is about the delicate transition from sedating to relating using parenting tips that work based on Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss [1].

Chris Voss was the former chief negotiator for the FBI. After retiring he found that the same principles that he used for terrorist negotiation worked quite well for the world of business, and his role as a father [1]. 

The FBI developed excellent negotiation training out of necessity. Many airline passengers were killed in an airplane hijacking in 1971 when FBI shot the engine of the plane instead of negotiating. Federal laws were changed so that a negotiation is always required before the use of force. When’s the last time we used force with our own child? You’ll see how powerful these steps are as the three questions we’re curious about today are: 

  1. What’s four simple steps to negotiate with children
  2. How to give your child safety and control
  3. How to discover your child’s pains and fears

Four Simple Steps to Negotiating with Children: TSM4

During a time of crisis we do not rise to the occasion, rather we fall to our greatest level of preparation. It important to not compromise on our values and principals while at the same time make your child feel heard and in control of the conversation. This is why it’s so important to have simple steps that you can follow and you can easily remember: I remember it as TSM4: two small men makes 4 in my family.

The four steps of negotiation used by the FBI are 

T is for Tonality: Low and slow late night FM DJ tonality. 

Voss said that only 7% of a conversation is words. A measly 7% is words. 38% is tonality and 55% is body language. This makes sense because the less conscious control we have the more it reveals how we feel [1]. 

That’s why it’s important to use a low and slow tone when negotiating. A higher pitch  “we’re not watching TV today” tends to sound more nervous while a a lower pitch “we’re not watching TV today” tends to project more confidence [2]. 

Going slow makes it clear that we are taking the time to understand their perspective and not rush for your next opportunity to speak. 

The tone that you use at the end of a sentence can change its meaning. A downward tone confirms “You want candy right now” while the upward tone asks the questioner to question what they just said “you want candy right now?” [2]. 

S is for Sorry: Start with sorry or look, I was unfair.

Saying sorry doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. The conversation can start with “Sorry, we’re not going to be able to do that.” That’s saying that you can trust what I say, I’m true to my word, if I can’t do it I’m going to be honest and let you know. It sets the tone for a real conversation about what is or is not going to work. 

M is for Mirror: Mirror the the critical last three words they said

It’s important to say “it sounds like” or “it seems like” instead of “I’m hearing…” since we then make it all about ourselves and the word “I” takes away from empathy. For example compare “I’m hearing you want to do your homework” to “it sounds like homework is stressing you out”

Don’t feel their pain, label it. Tactical empathy is not only understanding how they are feeling in the moment but also what is driving them towards that feeling. It is giving a name to the emotion that is driving their behavior. 

We’ve already spoken about how my child is not giving me a hard time, instead saying that I’m having a hard time handling my child’s emotional outbursts. When we do this we move from labeling the person to labeling the emotions and identifying the fears behind those emotions.    

4 is for 4 seconds: At least four seconds of silence after mirroring

We can get uncomfortable with silence, give your questions some breathing room for them to think and reflect on a response. Often people will talk themselves out of a situation when you mirror what they said as a question because it forces them to think about what they had said. 

The process of negotiation often fails when we are pressed for time or if people know that we have a deadline coming up. It’s important to give negotiation the time it needs. Repeat the TSM4 as many times as needed

Safety and Control

The two basic needs for every negotiation are: safety and control (or agency). A “No” is protection to create a safe space and give them a feeling of control. “Is now a bad time to talk” could invite a no response early and gives a yes with here’s a better time to talk for complete focus.

A “Yes” response gives us very little information: is this yes “counterfeit”, “confirming” or “convinced”? Only the convinced will take action. Counterfeit and confirming are both no’s in disguise. People will say a counterfeit yes to uphold our ego but it must be a convinced yes from them if you want to see a change in action. If someone says “you’re a great…” then you have failed in the negotiation because they should be congratulating themselves if we want to see action on their part. “You’re right” is another indicator that you’re getting a counterfeit or confirming yes. 

Another counterfeit yes is “I’ll try”. “I’ll try” is a way of making a plan for failure. Mirror with “I’ll try?”.  

A “No” response often changes the conversation so great negotiators tend to drive to the first no instead because it gives the other person a sense of control and gives them an opportunity to articulate what they really want. If our biggest fear is no then we can’t be a negotiator because we are a hostage to getting a yes. In fact, a “No” focused charity fundraising script produced 28% more results than a yes focused one. 

No questions can take many forms and tend to be very powerful. Asking “have you given up on this?” For example “have you given up on getting your black belt?” forces your child to come up with reasons why they have not given up. When this is someone else’s kid who doesn’t know you, you could say “Hey Everett, thank you for your energy today. Listen Everett, you’re probably gonna hate me for this. We’re playing the cleanup game. Do you want to sit quietly and wait or can we get your help?” [3].

“That’s right” or “exactly” is the outcome that we should strive for more than yes because it means that we have successfully paraphrased and labeled their emotions. This allows us to get to the black swan events. For example, understanding why they need something right now or why a child doesn’t want to share a toy. 

Using where, who, and why tend to lead to accusations. “Where did you get that candy?”, “who ate all of the cookies?” “Why did you leave Lego on the floor?”

Instead focus on using “what” and “how’ questions that tend to require thinking to respond. Two excellent questions are “How am I supposed to do that?” “How am I supposed to play with you when our floor is covered in hard toys?”

Another favorite is “What does having this do for you?” “What do you plan to do after we watch this episode?” has worked to get my kids to create a homeplan that they will start after they finish the episode.

Pains and Fears

Once we’ve established a safe environment where they feel in control it’s important to move the conversation towards your child’s pains and fears since this can drive a lot of their actions. 

“I never” and “you always” statements are exaggerations that are not true but meant to redirect internal feelings of fear or guilt. 

For example if our child says “You never listen to me” a natural reaction may be to say “yes, I do listen!” and to justify and defend rather than mirroring to dive deeper “never listen to you?” 

The pain your child may be trying to express is “I want to be listened to” and the deeper fear may be that “I’m afraid that you may not consider me worth listening to.” Knowing this would transform the conversation from defense to encouragement, from pain and fears to goals and dreams. This is what it means to move from relating to creating. 

Group activities often have many decision makers. You’ve heard of “ask your mother” but this also applies to child consent as well. For example, my wife and I were aligned that we wanted to try our inflatable boat at Ghost lake. But my youngest wanted to play Oculus, so we had to get him on board for why it was important for everyone to learn boat safety before our camping trip.

Usually it’s not hard to know if your child is lying. Even adults tend to use more words, and speak in the third person with words like ‘they’ and ‘them’. For example, “they gave me no choice” or “some of them thought that was a good idea.”  When we find them lying a natural reaction is to be disappointed that they lied but if we mirror into a question “they?” “Some of them”?

These fears are what Voss refers to as the black swan moments of that change the direction of a negotiation. We all have pains and fears but we can’t help one another if we don’t know what those are. If we feel our child is addicted to playing video games or being on social media. We can’t only see it as their problem, many of these fears can only be addressed when someone else is there to guide us. Maybe they feel alone and disconnected from their friends. Maybe they’re afraid and they can’t do anything right in the real world. 

The sooner we move from defense and accusations to relating with our child’s pains and fears the sooner we can move towards creating the goals that will move them towards their dreams 

Beyond Negotiating with Children

I want to thank Chris Voss for this insightful book called “Never Split the difference” which you can get on Amazon. I’ll leave a link to the book below. If you’d like to learn more about moving from Screen time to Quality time you’ll want to apply to be an Ai Parenting Insider. You’ll also benefit from developing an foundation in Artificial Intelligence with our Internet Drivers License course.


  1. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
  2. Late Night FM DJ Voice with Derek Gaunt
  3. Cold calling with Matt McNamara
  4. How to negotiate with your kids

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