Ep 22: Negotiating Rules and Limits

Chris Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI and author of the bestselling book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it, speaks with us about how to win negotiations with your teenager over things like curfew, cell phone usage, and other rules.

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Full show notes

Picture this: you come home from a full day at work. Part of your job might be to take out the trash on your floor every once in a while. When you get home, there is one more bag of trash that needs to be taken out. You ask your teen to do it. No big deal, right? It’ll take him 2 minutes at most. Nope! Instead, you both end up fighting about it for 10 minutes and dinner just got awkward.

Do you ever feel like your teenager is the most disagreeable person in your life?

If you are negotiating at work and you get into an argument, you still get to leave it at the office and go home at the end of the day. If you get into an argument while negotiating a rule with your teen, you still have to share the same roof with the child. Arguments with family can get emotional, and it’s hard to know how to negotiate with your teen when you are tired, angry, and hurt.

There aren't many experiences that prepare you for an argument with your own teenager. So, if you want to learn how to negotiate with your teen, where do you look for advice? Who else can relate to the intensity of household drama and the stubborn persistence of teenage logic?

How about the FBI’s top hostage negotiator? No, really!

Chris Voss is the FBI’s former lead international hostage negotiator. He is also the author of the hugely popular bestseller, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it. He is a leading expert in the science of negotiation, and knows how to negotiate with your teen through his wildly useful advice!

Tactical Empathy

Chris says that the first step in learning how to negotiate with your teen is learning how to apply tactical empathy. Your negotiation techniques won’t work unless you first understand what specific emotions drive your teen’s behavior. This is where tactical empathy comes in, but how is tactical empathy different from plain, old-fashioned empathy?

Empathy can help you identify if someone is struggling with emotions. “Tactical” empathy implies application. The application would be a careful observation and rephrasing of your teenager’s emotions. Here’s how to negotiate with your teen using this tactic:
  1. You notice that your teen started ripping at the bindings on his notebook.
  2. Consider what emotion is driving this unfamiliar behavior.
  3. Attempt to label this emotion. “Hey, it seems like your homework is making you very angry”.
  4. Keep trying to label the emotion until your teen confirms, “Yeah, I am angry.” Or, “Yeah, I’m really tired”.
  5. Listen as your teen vents and word vomits why they’re so upset.
  6. Continue to label emotions as you observe them, while your teen feels that you understand his situation.
  7. Gently steer your child to a point where you can calmly ask him to stop ripping at the bindings on his notebook.
By verbally labeling the emotions your teen is acting out on, you can purposefully dial those emotions up or down depending on what they are. This works for all emotions, not just anger or fatigue. Some emotions can be hard to identify, though, and Chris has a magic phrase for when that’s the case (see “Parent Scripts” tab).

Chris explains that if you label a positive emotion, it reinforces it, and if you label a negative emotion, it diffuses it! By being tactful with your labeling in a conversation, you can calm down the person you are talking to and get them to a place where a negotiation is possible.

This skill is extremely useful in learning how to negotiate with your teen, however, it’s harder than it sounds. Before you master tactical empathy, it’ll be good to learn more about how our emotions drive us.

Emotions are Subconscious

Emotions are almost entirely subconscious, meaning most of the time, we’re not in control of them. Chris says that if you can tap into emotions in your teens you can improve your connection with them. But how do you know what emotions to label and connect with?

When someone is acting strange, it seems odd to us because usually we don’t recognize (or choose not to recognize) what emotions are driving that behavior. When figuring out how to negotiate with your teen, there will be a lot of emotions you won’t immediately recognize. These elusive emotions are the ones you want to attempt to label.

Chris is quick to point out that we don’t have as much control over our emotions as we like to think we do. As they are primarily subconscious, we can control emotions in the same way we can control our own breath. For 30-45 seconds, you can probably get a handle on conscious breathing, but then autopilot kicks back into gear. The same happens when managing emotions. Chris uses this analogy to point out how silly it would be to try to control your emotions all the time:

“Stop breathing for an hour”.

You can’t.

Your teen is going to act on emotions subconsciously. Even if you can’t specifically identify your teen’s impelling emotions, you can still notice how it changes their behavior. If your teen is uncharacteristically throwing a fit over why there shouldn’t be a curfew, and you really don’t understand their outrage, you can say something nonjudgmental, like:

“Hey, it sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought”.

By trying to relate, even when you can’t, you are fishing for an opportunity for your teen to unveil their emotions. With a little luck and the right bait, you’re going to get your teen vomiting information, and this is good. Basically, you want to get them talking. For one, it helps teens hear their own thoughts out loud. Plus, it wears them out, and Chris says that’s never a bad thing.

It might sound like a waste of time to go through the process of paraphrasing your teen’s arguments and recognizing their emotions. But actually, it’s a huge time saver! Using tactical empathy in a calm, 10-minute negotiation beats an all-day fight any day! By following his instruction, you’ll know how to negotiate with your teen in no time.

Of course, you have subconscious emotions, too, and you need to plan for your potential responses to whatever you get your teen to say. You won’t know how to negotiate with your teen if you’re exploding in anger because they called you an “evil tyrant.” Their words, not mine.

Bringing it All Together

With conscious preparation, tactical empathy, and some patience, you can learn how to negotiate with your teen. When the time for the negotiation comes, Chris spells out some highly effective methods for bargaining towards your ideal outcome.

It might feel a little deceptive, but you don’t have to compromise on a later curfew hour. By learning how to negotiate with your teen, you can make your kid feel like they are winning arguments with outcomes that you decided in advance. (Listen in to find out how!) There are definitely some golden rules to live by, such as:

“Ignore human nature to your peril”.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood”.

In addition to discussing how to negotiate with your teen, Chris touches on a number of other factors that play into the parent-teen relationship. Topics that we cover in this conversation include:
  • “Black Swans” - those emotions that are hardest to identify
  • Behavioral patterns in all humans
  • The trap of the Fake “Yes”
  • “Motivational Interviewing” - another tactic for diffusing resistance
  • Controversy around “strategic umbridge” - why you probably shouldn’t fight fire with fire
  • “Why” vs “What” - a magical word swap
  • The Ackerman Model - 3 stage approach to negotiating
  • Understanding the teenage need for autonomy when negotiating
If you’re looking to step up how to negotiate with your teen, there might be no better man to talk to than Chris. He’s an expert on this stuff, and I’m so thankful I got the time to talk to him. I really hope you’ll give this episode a listen!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Ep 22: Negotiating Rules and Limits
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