With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, countless parents have instantly become first-time home-schoolers. And for many, it’s been far from easy. The confusion about requirements and the challenge of appropriate academics can build tension in families. Discord can become a daily pattern. How can you back away from the battle? 

Top FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss describes volatile scenarios filled with stressful intensity in his book “Never Split the Difference” (Harper Business, 2016). Parenting isn’t always a classic bargaining situation, but you certainly face many scenarios where you have to negotiate carefully.

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Voss equips readers to know how to “disarm, redirect, and dismantle your counterpart in virtually any negotiation” and to do all of this in a relationship-affirming way. He refers to his work as “emotional intelligence on steroids.” As a home-schooler, his work is extremely applicable — you need this emotional intelligence. You will gain it by embracing the role of negotiation in your life, by learning to listen with new tools and then by asking carefully calibrated questions.

Life is negotiation

Negotiation with your child is unceasing: from bedtime routines to conversations about college plans. Disputes are unavoidable. It is crucial that you know how to engage in that conflict without inflicting damage. Defining negotiation as “communication with results,” Voss reminds us of the ideal outcome. Negotiation isn’t about browbeating, it’s about cooperation. Learning to negotiate effectively will help you prevent “parenting burnout.” 

You simply cannot allow problems to go unresolved, especially in a home-school environment. When facing conflict, rather than mentally labeling your child as your adversary, keep your focus on the fact that the “the adversary is the unsolved issue,” suggests Voss. Think of your child as your partner as you work together to find a solution. 

Listener’s tools

Voss approaches negotiation from the view of information gathering. In his words, “negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery.” The first thing you need to do to prepare to negotiate is to build your collection of listener’s tools. 

The first tool Voss describes is mirroring. Essentially, mirroring is a form of imitation. In conversation, you repeat back a few of the key words or main ideas your child shared before you share your own ideas. Using a friendly, interested tone of voice, your gentle reiteration will encourage your child to continue speaking.

Believing that all people everywhere want to be understood and accepted, Voss champions listening as “the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make.” To begin negotiation, you must listen intently. You need to show a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing. Voss enumerates the benefits of this practice: people that are listened to become “less defensive and oppositional and more willing to listen to other points of view.”  When people feel heard, they become malleable.

Lest this sounds too simple, Voss warns that listening is actually a very active process, “less like chatting than like a formal art such as Chinese calligraphy.” Listening is a skill that requires practice.

Calibrated questions

After listening carefully and summarizing the situation, your next step will be to disarm your child by asking a question. This can stop the escalation of a situation. Voss terms these calibrated questions, since they are intended for a very specific purpose. They spark the thought processes that yield collaborative solutions. 

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By asking a question, you accentuate the fact that you need the intelligence of your child to help overcome the difficulty. Refrain from questions with a simple yes/no response. Try asking, “What is the biggest challenge you face?” or “How can I help to make this better for us?” Spoken with sincerity and without any accusation, these questions can shift the dialogue toward joint problem-solving.  

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Rather than telling them what the problem is, they will discover it for themselves. As they identify the problem, they will offer answers you might not have realized were possible. Importantly, they will then feel that the final solution is their idea. This is paramount, Voss says, since “people always make more effort to implement a solution when they think it’s theirs.”  Voss admits that negotiation is often called “the art of letting someone else have your way.”  


The next time you find yourself headed toward a tense power struggle with your child, defuse the situation by pausing to listen. Voss’ maxim is: “Negotiation is the heart of collaboration.”  Listening carefully will permit you to partner with your child. Synergistic solutions will result as you ask intentional questions. These emotional “best practices” will help you create more meaningful and warm relationships.

Rachel Spigarelli has been home schooling her six children for 13 years, one negotiation at a time.

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