“One carrot… that’s my final offer” / a study of Toddler negotiation strategies at mealtimes
I am extraordinarily lucky to have two wonderful daughters aged two and a bit and 5 months old.
My eldest, Lola, now chatty, energetic and… quite the character shall we say, is beginning to formulate a potent negotiation playbook when it comes to mealtimes.
It’s difficult to predict when I will be faced with some of her more emphatic negotiation strategies. Some days it’s eerily straightforward, others it’s... not.
Let’s examine some of Lola’s core negotiation skills.
Positioning is all about shifting expectations before we negotiate – creating that sense of inevitability and increasing one’s power. Lola is a positioning expert. She can quite happily establish a position at the beginning of a mealtime that she is not going to eat any of her main course - none. She will restate this position in a highly credible way (i.e. shoving bowl away, tears and restating her position over and over like a small blond broken record). This is typically combined with repeated demands for pudding and pudding only.
From creating this position and shifting my expectations to close to zero for the consumption of today’s cottage pie and stealth peas ‘n’ carrots, she has me right where she wants me. Low to zero expectations of savoury food consumption and already thinking about when I might need to offer today’s seasonal sweet of strawberries and Greek yoghurt. Now she can move from this position and begin to deliver satisfaction - the art of letting me have her way.
Lola may then eventually agree to three-four mouthfuls of said cottage pie before pushing the bowl away. Due to her effective positioning strategy and my resultant lowered expectations, I am now feeling satisfied with this concession. (Well done Lola). Now we are negotiating. Lola’s concessions will get smaller and smaller until we are down to tiny single spoonful’s of food. This communicates to me that it’s getting harder and harder for her to accept more cottage pie... leaving me valuing each concession she makes even more and feeling yet more satisfaction – bravo Lola
Lola chooses her behaviours very carefully to manage my feelings journey and leave me feeling good about the eventual deal… done on her terms of course.
She begins with a cocktail of disinterest, scepticism, and the odd flourish of anger. Now I am sensing that this is not going to go well and those expectations are well and truly lowered.
She then moves to cautious and begrudging as she takes a few mouthfuls, which are in turn met with another dollop of scepticism and fading interest. Eventually excitement and happiness arrive right on cue as an accoutrement to the mention of pudding. This behavioural strategy works by dropping my feelings off a cliff and slowly building them back up, feeling relatively better about the (meal) deal.
Opening extreme and professional flinch
When the repeated demands for pudding in combination with refusal to eat any more main course reach a crescendo, we finally conclude that the battle of cottage pie is over.. now the strawberry war can begin…
“I want ten strawberries!” The bowl of four strawberries arrives. “NO (outrage face) - more strawberries, and banana!”.
The professional flinch and a restating of her extreme demand now undermines my confidence in the offer of four strawberries and puts the onus on me to pull her from her position. Grateful to see some enthusiasm for eating anything at all now... more fruit and mountains of yoghurt are dutifully delivered (that earlier managing of my expectations still working wonders).
The deal is done, the meal is over. I am left feeling highly satisfied with the consumption of a soupçon of cottage pie and a veritable mountain of strawberries and taste the difference yoghurt (perhaps she really can taste the difference).
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