Why My 7 Year Old Can Out-negotiate Half The Lawyers In NY

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negotiating kids

So, I am driving my daughter to a friend’s house and she says something that makes me realize kids are a absolute masters in the art of marketing and persuasion.

It was all in the way she framed what she said.

“Daddy,” she shared, “ice cream got on the seat.” Until that moment, I never knew ice cream actually had the ability to do anything. Now I learn it not only has the power to be eaten, but to jump up and get onto things.

Contrast this with an earliier conversation we had about her art, where she revealed not that a beautiful painting “got drawn,” but that “she” drew this gorgeous vision with oil pastels. What am I getting at here? It’s subtle, yet powerful.

One of the most powerful tools in guiding a discussion, be it marketing or negotiation is tense-shifting.

Consciously choosing to associate specific tenses with either benefits or detriments. The tense I am talking about are subjective (personal), objective (impersonal), past and present.  The example above is about the effect of shifting between subjective and objective tenses.

Use the subjective to associate

When you want to make a feature, benefit, detriment or action more relevant or impactful, you personalize it, convey it using the subjective tense. You put it into the experience of the person listening or reading. You associate it with that person, like my daughter did with her art. She wanted to be associated with the benefit and accolades of being a great artist, so she stepped into the role and used subjective language. She took credit for it.

Objectify to dissociate

When you want to raise certain negative issues or detriments, however, but minimize their impact, you use language that takes them out of the reader’s personal experience, objective language like “the” ice cream and you may even take it a step further, giving inanimate objects seemingly human abilities to “act” in an effort to remove yourself from being associated with that negative outcome or trait.

Seven year olds figure this out pretty quickly and dial it in.

But somehow, along the way, our rational grown-up minds move us back toward strict narration when we describe situations later in life. Being aware of the impact of tense-shifting, though, allows you to better position certain facts and circumstances when presenting an advertising or marketing message, communicating with colleagues or adversaries or conveying information that requires an element of persuasion.

Little linguistic techniques, like this, bring you closer to your desired outcome.

But, what about the effect of past/present tense-shifting? I’ll share some thoughts on that in an upcoming post.

So, I am curious, who else has noticed this type of patterning, either in their kids or day to day life?

And, an even bigger question, while these linguistic patterns seem pretty natural and harmless coming from the mouths of kids, is there any ethical issue with tapping a knowledge of linquistic patterning in a later life or professional setting in an effort to help accomplish a goal?

Let’s discuss…

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16 responses

16 responses to “Why My 7 Year Old Can Out-negotiate Half The Lawyers In NY”

  1. To this day, my parents make a point of remarking on how well I used these little linguistic tricks to manipulate phrases as a child. “No wonder he writes copy,” they say, but I listen to my three year old and realize that he’s far better at it than me. Kids are the best copywriters of them all!

  2. Marf says:

    This is old hat in IT support. Most users will spill some coffee on company equipment from time to time, but if it’s a sales rep “some liquid got into the laptop”. An unfortunate side effect of using this kind of language manipulation is that it’s easy to lose sight of when you’re shooting yourself in the foot with it.

    I’m sure internal IT isn’t the only audience where it comes across as disingenuous – if used without care, this technique is going to alienate people.

  3. Gina says:

    I, too, have noticed this phenomenom when I had but one child. It would appear that inanimate objects transfer their ability to act on their own to hapless siblings if and when they enter the scene.

  4. Dan says:

    First – my 7-yr-old son last night: Mom, I’d rather shower in the morning so I can “spend some time with Dad … so, we have a deal, right?” Mad skills, son. And yes, even my 3.5 yr-old notes how “the cereal got on the carpet.” She’ll even add that it “tried to get on the carpet” when it has already fulfilled its intent and made it to the floor. How can she be blamed.

    Second – To your “bigger question” & whether there is some dishonesty in selective language that pushes one’s agenda while avoiding hurdles, I’ll have to hedge that extreme brutal honesty has its own set of ethics pitfalls (and by the way, now I’m paranoid that you’ve used “bigger question” and “let’s discuss” to get us (your hapless, innocent readers) to become invested in the topic, check back for updates, and add the RSS). Just kidding; as usual, fresh, frank stuff here, so thanks.

  5. My five year old does it too. I can see that I will have even more trouble negotiating with her as she get older. She is very good at reasoned arguments.

  6. shelley says:

    I say use all the tools you can.

    In the work place I always ask my staff if they “are willing,” or “would you be able to,” or “do you think you can” (insert what I want done here)I then say thank you or “that would be really helpful… This way I am not the “boss” but a team player and it makes the wheels turn smoothly. This is a language trick I picked up somewhere along the line…

    Now as to ethics, I see no problem in using language correctly and to the benifit of my goals.

    I do at times get annoyed when people do not take ownership of what is happening in life by being defensive or trying to dissacociate as a character trait

    I think that you can notice pretty quickly who has an issue with taking responsibility, though smart if you are the adult and you are trying to pass the heat off you now and again, it is a very childlike trait. Is it a fear of blame?


  7. Tim says:

    My kid just uses brute force techniques:

    Kid: Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Dad.
    Dad: No son, Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Teacher.
    Kid: Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Dad.
    Dad: No son, Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Teacher.
    Kid (louder): Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Dad.
    Dad: No son, Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Teacher.
    Kid (even louder): Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Dad.
    Dad (quietly): Darth Sidious is Anakin’s Dad.

  8. Shama Hyder says:

    Seeing as how I am a marketer and hubby to be is a lawyer-our kids are going to give the best of them a run for their money.

    I think as marketers we already struggle with the reputation of not being straight forward, so we have an added job of taking extra responsibility.

  9. Justin says:

    That’s really clever how you extracted so much depth from such a simple phase. But it really does make sense and is applicable. I think all humans do this, as when something negative happens, everybody wants to be as far away from the blame as possible. “The man got shot” instead of “I shot the man”, heh heh.

  10. Chanel says:

    I find it so fascinating that children seem to possess many “natural born” skills like this – they are easily trusting, easily loving, they see problems for what they are, etc. .. And as time goes by, life seems to wear at these skills (whether that be a good or bad thing) to help them “survive”.

    But we can learn a lot from children. This reminds me of Matthew 18 in the bible actually, where Jesus says that we need to be “like children” (to enter the kingdom of God) and that we need to “humble ourselves” like children… While we typically view our present adult self as wiser and “better” than our childlike self, I think that there are some traits and abilities we’ve “downgraded” (so to speak) in the aging process.

    Regarding the ethical issue – I don’t see anything wrong with this. In some ways it can be viewed as manipulative, but I think that as long as you are using it for genuine good (of all parties involved) and not bad, it’s definitely fine.

  11. Jonathan Fields says:

    I just decided to create a new seminar for my Fall schedule…

    Marketing Mastery: Turning 7-Year Old Wisdom Into 7-Figures!

    Hahahahaha, so kidding! But, guaranteed someone’s going to run with it.

    As always, love the comments and stories, especially the classic Star Wars debate. How come just saying the same thing louder and louder doesn’ work at work, but someone how it’s a sure win as a kid? 😉

  12. Laurie says:

    With my five year old, uh , I mean teenager, I give two choices both of which I can live with and he chooses. I had this discussion with the college son. He was out of money and was “Starving”! I didn’t want to just send him money because he has not always made the best decisions. I told him I was going to buy some food and mail it to him. He didn’t want that at all. He wanted the money and he go get it himself. I then gave him the two choices, he could accept my mailed food or go without. He decided to take the food after all. HUH? Suprise?

  13. Sophie says:

    I hadn’t noticed this but after reading your article I realize that my kids do use some clever techniques to win arguments; including my 3 year-old daughter asking me a question and then immediately adds “say yes” or “say no”; what choice do I have? Do as I am told, or face an hour of crying until I finally surrender?

  14. NY Lawyer says:

    When your daughter says “ice cream got on the seat” she is actually using a very well known yet very hard to use negotiation technique, that is, never start a negotiation in a disadvantage position, even if you are in an actual disadvantage. Changing little words and using tense shifting have a huge impact at the starting point of a negotiation. This is something kids use so often and we, somehow, forget.

  15. MizFit says:

    and my 2.5 yo is well on her way.

  16. Craig says:

    lol I enjoyed reading this.

    I’m very curious about language and how it’s used. Especially areas such as body language.

    Just currently finished reading a good called ‘Definative book of body language’ and a lot that was brought up in this article was mentioned 🙂