Children can’t fully grasp the concept of empathy until the age of six or seven. The methods above are used to help bend maturing brains toward empathy, but they can also be subtly employed in the context of a contentious negotiation. The goal, said Carol Gross, a preschool teacher coach at New York’s Bank Street College, is “to expand the set of possibilities that they see as a solution, beyond ‘give me what I want or you don’t get what you want.’”

“It’s not rocket science”

In 2010, a team of researchers observed 67 families to study conflict resolution within and across generations. They found, not surprisingly, that conflicts between parents and children tended to have a win-lose outcome: parents pulled rank. Standoffs were more likely between siblings and spouses, where the power dynamic was more equal.

But they also found that negotiations between adults and children were in some ways more productive than those between adults. With their children, parents spent more time working on productive, future-oriented solutions (“How can we work this out?”). With their spouses, they often engaged in the kind of oppositional behavior that solves nothing (“Seriously? You think that’s a good idea?”).

“It makes some sense,” said lead author Holly Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University. “Parents are socialization agents, so they’re being more constructive with their kids than with their partners.”

In other words, when dealing with children, adults know it’s their responsibility to set a good example. When dealing with another adult, all of that can be forgotten. The difference between stalemate and successful resolution can be remembering that each party has a duty to find a mutually acceptable solution rendered in respectful terms.

“It’s communication and empathy, which are things we learn as children or don’t learn as children,” Ury said. “It’s not rocket science.”

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