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Negotiation tips from the playground by Jo Haigh


I have spent most of my professional life negotiating one thing or other, be it the purchase or acquisition of a company, or the terms around a new financial lending instrument.

I have attended a number of high profile training classes in negotiation skills in my career and even taught the odd group of people, so I consider myself fairly skilled in this area.

But the ironic point is that I honed my real skills many many years ago, not in the boardroom, but in the playground and across the kitchen table.

It’s my children who have taught me how to negotiate because surely they are some of the most skilled in this field.

As babies, my children could only communicate in a limited manner. Crying is soon learnt to elicit a certain response as is smiling and giggling. Surprisingly, my own children also quickly learnt that my then husband was more resilient to the cries, whereas I was much quicker to take action to feed, cuddle, change the nappy or do whatever was needed to stop the noise. This was nothing to do with his lack of caring skills; rather his tolerance levels were clearly greater than mine and still remain so, I believe.

As such the children all learnt very quickly who had the softer touch and this was before they could even utter the words mumma or dada!

Did my tiny babies actually recognise something I now know to be very important? That it’s not real bargaining power that matters but rather that one side believes the other side possesses such power.

Babies of course don’t know this and because they don’t, they ignore it and just continue until they get their own way.

I am not suggesting this is a sure win negotiating tactic but persistence certainly has its merits at the right time.

A critical strength for any negotiator is confidence. Babies and children, unless and until it is bashed out of them by super critical parents, have no other experiences that can compromise there self-beliefs. I have always told my children they can do anything and be anyone and they have grown up confident. Even when things don’t quite go their way, they remain confident enough that any slips are just slips, and they can recover and remain fabulous negotiators.

Negotiating is a tough and often long road; my resilience has seen me through some very difficult periods. Children are generally born with huge personal resilience, watch the child fall off their bike or swing and with a few cuts and bruises they are back to play very swiftly.

My own children and friends’ children have coped with difficult divorces. I lost my mother at 16, which was a very difficult time, but I can honestly say this terrible experience has  made me not only resilient, but much more pragmatic about troubles than perhaps I may have been.

Other observations that now have an analogy in my business world include:

  • Understanding that negotiation isn’t about capitulation, it’s about finding a mutually acceptable solution.
  • Taking time out to reconsider or just calm down is hugely important; don’t be rushed into compromises or quick decisions.
  • Finally I have realised that sometimes things can’t be negotiated and it’s time to walk away from a situation that is intractable.

So thanks kids! Great lessons to and from mum, I hope.

Jo Haigh – Partner at fds Corporate Finance and Cracking Boards
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 01924 376784 / 01484 860501

The winner of the Sunday Times NED of the year award, Claridge’s 14th March 2013.

Jo’s latest book: The Keys to the Boardroom, how to get there and how to stay there, is due for release October 2013.

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