How to Talk to Your Teen Like an FBI Negotiator
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
“Can I have the car keys?” “Why can’t I stay out as late as Tom?” “Can I spend the night at Ashley’s house?” “Do I have to take biology?” “How come I don’t get a bigger allowance?”
Ever feel like you’re in an endless battle with your teenager over the same old issues? He wants one thing, you want another. Frustration and hurt feelings result. The tension can taint your relationship if not resolved. It can be especially tricky for homeschoolers because you’re constantly around each other.
To stop the unhealthy cycle and create peace between you and your teen, you need a new approach. You need to think more like a negotiator and less like a defensive, frazzled parent.
Here are some negotiation techniques from retired FBI negotiator Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, that can improve your communication.
How often has your teen responded to your “no” with more arguments and anger? It’s human nature to tense up and ready for a fight when presented with a “no.” Instead of directly denying your child’s request, try responding with a calibrated question.
Calibrated questions are an ingenious way to say “no” without using the word. They are open-ended (rather than requiring a yes or no answer). They also cause the listener to pause and think about your side of the situation.
The best calibrated questions use “how” or “what.” How can we solve this problem? What about this is important to you? What are we trying to accomplish? Notice the difference in the following examples:
Teen: Mom, I want to use the car.
Mom: No. I need to bring your sister to soccer practice.
Teen: Why do you always say “no” when I want to use the car? You never let me do anything!
Teen: Mom, I want to use the car.
Mom: I’d really like to help, but how am I supposed to do that? Sara has soccer.
Teen: But I really want the car tonight.
Mom: I’m sorry, but how am I supposed to manage that?
Teen: Maybe I can drop Sara off on my way to John’s house.
Notice how in the second example the mom’s answer shifts the focus from what her son wants to what she needs. Her calibrated question invites her son to find a solution to her problem.
Tone of voice is important with calibrated questions. Your tone needs to convey sincerity and a need for help. Also, avoid starting a question with “why”: Why did you do that? Why don’t you think things through? A “why” question is received as an accusation. It puts your child on the defense, making him feel like he must justify himself.
Mirrors in negotiations involve repeating back key parts of what the other person says, often making your words sound like a question. It’s a way of showing concern while asking for further explanation.
Teen: I’m really mad at Vanessa.
Parent: Mad at Vanessa?
Teen: Yes, for wearing my clothes without asking.
Parent: Wearing your clothes.
Teen: Yeah, my new blue dress. I just got it! She knows she’s not supposed to borrow my stuff without asking me first.
If you use mirrors along with other negotiation techniques, the listener won’t even realize what you’re doing. They’ll simply feel heard.
“Ask someone, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and you’re likely to incite irritation or defensiveness,” Voss explained. “A mirror, however, will get you the clarity you want while signaling respect and concern for what the other person is saying.”
Labels and summaries
Sometimes a person can get caught up in an emotion and not realize how she’s feeling. Labeling the feelings often diffuses the situation. It can be as simple as, “It seems like you’re ______ (stressed/worried/angry). What’s going on?” Naming the underlying emotion brings the real problem to the forefront and shifts the focus to solving that problem.
Like mirrors and labels, summaries work wonders. Briefly summarizing what your teen said makes him feel heard and lets him know you’re listening. Use some of his own words. However, “don’t try to force [him] to admit that you are right,” Voss said. Such aggressive confrontation shuts down the conversation. Summarizing isn’t about you; it’s about reflecting the thoughts your teen is trying to get across.
Each of these techniques require active listening, really listening. This means throwing out the assumption that you already know what your teen is going to say. It also means tuning in rather than focusing on your own response.
Here’s a sample conversation using these techniques:
Teen: All my friends get to stay up until 10 o’clock! It’s not fair that I have to go to bed at 8:30.
Parent: Not fair? (mirror)
Teen: Yeah. Why do I have to go to bed earlier than everyone else? I’m the only one who doesn’t watch that cool TV show. When everybody talks about it, I don’t get it. It’s just not fair!
Parent: You feel left out (label) because you’re not up to speed on the show. You’d like to stay up later so you can watch it. (summary)
Teen: That’s right.
Remember, your teenager isn’t your enemy! Or the problem. “The unsolved issue is. So focus on the issue,” Voss said.
Different personalities approach negotiations differently. It’s easy to misinterpret people who use a style other than your own. Here’s a brief explanation of the three categories of styles determined by Voss and his son Brandon.
1. Assertive: Getting the job done is the number one for these folks. They like to charge ahead to finish the task in front of them rather than slowing down to focus on mistakes along the way. Assertives aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. They are direct and dislike chitchat. They don’t necessarily consider others’ feelings, but rather focus on their own goals.
“When you’re dealing with Assertive types, it’s best to focus on what they have to say, because once they are convinced you understand them, then and only then will they listen for your point of view,” Voss said.
Tools that work well with Assertives are summaries, mirrors, labels, and calibrated questions. If you are an Assertive parent, remember your way is not the only way to accomplish a goal. Kids can approach things from all different angles, so give them the leeway to do so. Also, soften your tone of voice, slow down, and purposefully employ labels and calibrated questions.
2. Analyst: These individuals value getting it right, no matter how long it takes. If they make a mistake, their self-image suffers a blow. They are methodical, detailed planners who like working alone.
“Analysts often speak in a way that is distant and cold instead of soothing,” Voss said. “This puts people off without them knowing it and actually limits them from putting their counterpart at ease and opening them up.”
If you’re dealing with an Analyst, don’t pepper him with questions or fill silent moments with talk; instead, give him time to think. Labels work well with Analysts. “Don’t ad-lib” when presenting your point, Voss advised. Instead, focus on facts, stick to the plan, and stay clear of surprises. If you’re an Analyst, remember to smile; it makes you more approachable.
3. Accommodator: Relationships are top priority to Accommodators, so they focus more on other people than on the task at hand. They love talking, listen well, and are friendly. “Of the three types, they are most likely to build great rapport without actually accomplishing anything,” Voss noted.
Accommodators are likely to avoid problems. They are quick to acquiesce to keep the peace. So calibrated questions that focus on taking action work well with them. If you are an Accommodator, cut back on the chitchat, don’t be afraid to disagree, and follow through on what you agree to do.
Problems arise when you assume your approach is “normal,” so of course your children see things the same way you do. Voss calls this “one of the most damaging assumptions in negotiations. With it, we unconsciously project our own style on the other side.”
The way around that is understanding your teen’s “normal.” Each negotiation style thinks and talks differently. And each style interprets conversations differently. Take silence, for example. To Assertives, silence means the other person didn’t understand something or doesn’t have anything to say. For analysts, silence is the quiet time they need to think. To Accommodators, silence means the other person is angry at them.
As every parent knows, kids push boundaries. But disagreements don’t have to be battlegrounds. They can lead to peaceful solutions. You merely need to know how to negotiate.