There was one piece of birthday cake left. The newly minted 6-year-old felt entitled to that piece of cake. After all, it was HER birthday. Her 3-year-old sister was thoroughly unmoved by any sense of rights or entitlement. She wanted to be a part of anything her sister did. She wanted to belong rather than feeling left out. Indignant cries of “it’s not fair!” would echo throughout the house if she didn’t get any of that last piece of birthday cake when her sister did.
A natural solution, employed by many parents, that dates back to the Old Testament passage about King Solomon, is to split the piece in half. Afterall, don’t we engrain into our children from a young age that sharing is caring? What if we taught our children to get curious about the underlying needs and interests motivating the other person’s positions and demands? What if we each practiced expanding the cake rather than dividing it? Let me show you how:
Me to 6-year-old: I wonder why you want that last piece of cake.
6-year-old: I just love cake!
Me to 6-year-old: What’s your favorite part of the cake?
6-year-old: The frosting!
Me to 6-year-old: Oh, the sweet frosting is your favorite part?!
6-year-old: Yes, I just love frosting!
Me to 3-year-old: I wonder why you want that last piece of cake.
3-year-old: It’s not fair if she gets cake and I don’t.
Me to 3-year-old: I see, you have a need to be given the same opportunities as your sister. What’s your favorite part of the cake?
3-year-old: The cake!
So, by getting curious about underlying motivation and engaging in dialogue, we learned:
The 6-year-old really wanted the frosting, while the 3-year-old really wanted the cake. Once we better understood their underlying interests, we could craft a solution that maximized each of them getting what they wanted (ie: the 6-year-old got the frosting and the 3-year-old got the cake) rather than just splitting the cake (frosting and all) down the middle, which would have resulted in each of them actually getting less of what they truly desired.
Setting aside this mom’s need for proper nutrition and dental hygiene for her children, this scenario is a perfect illustration of an interest-based negotiation model. Interest-based negotiation is an approach to conflict resolution, often used in collaborative law, that seeks to uncover the underlying motivation that is driving someone to take a certain position or make a certain demand. When we curiously peel back the layers of the onion, we often find there’s more common ground than we ever realized. From there, we can brainstorm solutions that meet the parties’ underlying interests and create a sustainable resolution of their conflict.