02/21/2011 08:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Finding Negotiation Strategies... In A Children's Book?

Negotiations are a form of conflict resolution, which makes them inherently dramatic. It therefore comes as no surprise that movies and TV shows are full of excellent (albeit fictional) case studies on negotiations. I've spotted a great lesson on understanding your BATNA in a Batman movie.* The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also serves as a good guide to understanding the difference between a position and an interest. You can even find examples of negotiations in children's books like Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!

If you haven't read this wonderful picture book yet, it opens with a man speaking directly to the reader. He explains that he has to step away to brush his teeth before bed and asks the reader to make sure the pigeon doesn't stay up late. The rest of the story involves the pigeon trying to convince the reader to let him to stay up past his bedtime.

In short, the pigeon is a negotiator.

Is he any good? His strategy has its strengths and its weaknesses. Here's a look at what he gets wrong and what he gets right.

What Goes Wrong

The pigeon tries at least 13 distinct tactics to win the reader over to his side. A lot of these tactics are the crudest forms of negotiation. He throws out irrelevant arguments ("It's the middle of the day in China!") He pleads. He uses emotional blackmail. He even, in his most honest moment, reverts to simply begging ("Pleeeeeaaaassseee!")

The pigeon also makes no attempts to understand the other party's interests. At one point, he tries to make a concession by offering that "I'll go to bed early tomorrow night instead!" This demonstrates that he does not understand the other side's real goal. Extra sleep tomorrow night cannot be exchanged for extra awake time tonight.

Some of his tricks are better than that, but whatever the quality of the pigeon's tactics may be separately, taken together each individual tactic undermine the effectiveness of the others. The scatter-shot approach leaves the other party (the reader) with the impression that everything the pigeon says is insincere--he'll say anything to get what he wants. You never believe that he's explaining why he should be allowed to stay up late. He may as well be telling you that there is no reason he should get what he wants. In a successful negotiation, you should be able to articulate what you want, why you want it, and why the other party should give it to you.

What Goes Right

Although the pigeon's efforts to negotiate a later bedtime ultimately fail, he does get some things right. The pigeon never quite gets a grasp of the other side's interests (a full night sleep tonight and every night), but he does demonstrate that he has learned what the other side values... and uses that knowledge to try to elicit an emotional response. For example, he says "Y'know, we never get to talk anymore. Tell me about your day..." In my favorite moment of the book, the pigeon slyly says "I hear there's a good show about birds on TV tonight. Should be very educational."

What parent wouldn't value spending quality time with their child? What parent doesn't value education? There is merit to working with the other party's values. If you know, for example, that the person on the other side of the negotiating table has a strongly developed sense of fairness, then your position can be couched in terms of fairness. Of course, this technique is more effective when it's tied to the substance of your offer. In the pigeon's case, his tactic is a purely emotional play with no relevance to reader's mission of not letting him stay up late.

These two attempts to tap into the reader's values also show off the pigeon's best strategy. Instead of begging to stay up late, he attempts to guide the reader to his position. When he mentions that there's an educational program on TV tonight, he wants the reader to be the one who suggests that he should stay up late. When done properly, this is an effective and ideal strategy.

It All Comes Down To BATNA In The End

As the reader of Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, you assume a hard-line position. You concede nothing while the pigeon scrambles in vain to make a dent in your armor. How are you able to do this? Easy--you know you've got the better BATNA. Whether he likes it or not, the pigeon ("Yawn!") is going to bed soon.

Find more business insights from unlikely places at Unexpected Experts.


*BATNA stands for "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement."

Illustration from Mo Willems Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! © 2006 by Mo Willems. Reprinted by Permission of Disney•Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.