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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

The Trouble with Threats!

Updated: Dec 19, 2019



It is difficult to understate the importance that threats play in most negotiations. A threat is any communication that delivers demands and warns of the impacts of non-compliance. Even if negotiating parties never explicitly verbalise their threats, potential threats, like the loss of potential business or influence, cast a long shadow over most negotiations.


Whenever someone asks me to draft a threatening letter to go to a third party I always say: “never make a threat that you don’t fully intend to carry out”.

When you are first handed a rifle in army basic training they tell you: “….never point this at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger.” They say it for the same reason.


In 1981 there was an industrial dispute between the U.S. government and the professional air traffic controllers’ union. After a short period of fruitless negotiation President Ronald Reagan carried out a threat that he had previously made and fired all 11,359 air-traffic controllers who would not return to work. Many commentators view Reagan’s controversial threat, and costly follow-through, as a pivotal moment in his presidency and the foundation for many future political victories.


If you have kids then you will know the consequences of not carrying out the threats that you make. Every time you don't following through as a parent it’s a double whammy: you diminish your power for next time. Plus, you are teaching your kids that their bad behaviour will go unpunished.


If you feel you absolutely must make a threat then it’s advisable to start with something small and do-able: that will increase rather than diminish your credibility.


That’s OK with small kids – you can threaten to send them to the “naughty step” or withhold a planned treat. Those things are pretty easy to follow through on because, as an adult, you will likely have the physical edge to make them happen if your child doesn’t comply. It’s not so easy with eye-rolling teenagers, and even harder with co-workers or business counterparts.


The expression “brinkmanship” was coined to describe the Cold War philosophy of the then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In an article written in Life Magazine, John Foster Dulles defined his policy of brinkmanship as "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art."


You may be the sort of person who is used to getting their way through brinkmanship. If you are you will know that if you make a threat then there is a very good chance that you will receive one back in return - threats usually lead to counter-threats. Even if people on the receiving end don't have enough power to counter-threaten, they will often react negatively in some way or another. You can find yourself on a slippery slope pretty quickly. And remember a veiled-threat is still a threat. A warning will still sound like a threat.

Another problem with brinkmanship is that you will quickly get a reputation for using it (see Terrorism below). And some people may misread your genuinely “very angry” signals as just play-acting.


The Good, Bad and the Ugly threat


It is best to avoid threats altogether, if you can. If you can’t avoid them then think carefully before you do.

A ‘good’ threat is one that satisfies your own interests and targets the other side’s interests. Ask yourself the following:

* Is your threat based on emotion? Never make a threat in anger. Multiple studies have linked anger to reduced information processing, risky behaviours, and poor judgment. A reliable rule of thumb is to never make a threat that you did not plan in advance.

* Will your threat incite a counter-threat that will hurt you more? As stated above threats often provoke counter-threats. Before making a threat, assess how the other side might retaliate and make sure you that you are prepared to fight that new battle.

* Will carrying out the threat cost you more than it will cost the other side? Threats are not about punishing the other side; they are about fulfilling your own interests.

* Is the threat credible? A threat is only as strong as it is credible. If you are known for sometimes being rash or obstinate, even your more extreme threats are likely to be taken seriously. Your threats also may be effective if you have a reputation for following through, or for being willing to sacrifice money for principle. Sometimes the best way to make your threat credible is to act in a way that would normally appear counter-intuitive. Examples include: restricting your own options, spending money on apparently less viable options, and surrendering authority. But these are usually tactics to be avoided. These threats generally don't work because they make you seem irrational or unpredictable, and because they fundamentally alter your strategic options and those of your counterpart.

* Will the threat motivate or immobilise the other side? If a threat would indeed serve your interests, make sure the threat will function as a motivator, not a punishment. Frame it in terms of how compliance will further your counterpart’s interests rather than how noncompliance will impede them. Be careful! Backing the other side into a corner from where they cannot negotiate is like trapping a wounded animal – they can become dangerous and unpredictable.


And remember: in many Eastern cultures any ultimatum that involves the other side “losing face” could be a critical error from which your relationship will never recover.


There are some exceptions to the above basic rules:


First: research (by Sinaceur, Van Kleef, Neale, & Haag, 2011) has shown that in some negotiations making overt, well-timed threats is effective. In the first of their studies, Sinaceur et al found that anger does encourage people to concede more, and it has that effect because people see an implied threat. But anger tends to create what the researchers call "collateral damage", lingering resentment that makes it less likely for people to want to deal with you in the future. So, if you can achieve the same concessions with threats alone, so much the better. The researchers also found that threats actually yield more concessions than do expressions of anger. This makes sense: as anger is an implied threat, a direct threat is going to be more powerful. Further the research revealed that being seen as confident and in control of one's own feelings when making threats is crucial. If you appear angry people might think that you haven’t carefully considered what you are saying, and your words may not be taken seriously. However, a cold, non-emotional threat tends to come across as more intentional — and, therefore, more credible.


Second: if you are a terrorist organisation then threats (even empty ones) can play in your favour. Although empty threats against civilians may negatively impact a groups’ strength and credibility, bluffing is a common terrorist tactic. An academic study of threats made by Boko Haram, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and the Real Irish Republican Army found that their empty terrorist threats had relatively few negative impacts on their success. Bluffing is a low-cost tactic that often gains media attention and causes governments to deploy substantial resources in response. Governments that overreact, even in justified self-­­defence, may also undermine their own legitimacy, as they unwittingly serve the terrorists’ goals. If a government responds to threats with repressive, polarising behaviour that alienates the civilian population, then the terrorists win. [The fact that we all grumble about having to take our shoes off at airport security is a case in point].

Extremists also use bluffing effectively to outbid rival factions, spoil peace settlements, and intimidate civilians. But, hey! I’m not directing this article to extremists (hopefully).


How to deal with indirect and direct threats


Be prepared

Before any negotiation learn as much as possible about the individual with whom you are dealing. If you can, learn about your opponent’s history, markets, future plans and where you might fit into that.

Often you will go into a negotiation with only part of the story, but that’s what makes the negotiation experience thrilling, or terrifying – depending on your perspective.


Analyse the threat

Most of us have been in a negotiation with someone who stops bargaining, and starts issuing ultimatums. They might use intimidation and fear tactics: threaten to walk away, to begin legal action, or damage your character and reputation. How should you respond?

- The first step is to try to remove yourself from the situation – physically and emotionally. Maybe suggest a short break. By detaching yourself from the situation you can calm your emotions and try to calmly understand what the other side is saying. It might be worth asking how things have got to the point where threats are appropriate. Should the threat be ignored altogether?

- Second, empathise with your opponent. Consider the motivation behind their threat. Maybe your counterpart is feeling frustrated or offended? The threat may have emerged from his/her basic need to be heard and acknowledged. Or is this someone “speaking truth to power” – letting you know that they actually hold a good hand of cards? Alternatively, is this person bluffing?


Always Question the threat

By asking questions about a given threat you can unearth hidden concerns and avoid caving in to demands unnecessarily. Your goal should be to determine the power, or the constraints, underpinning your counterpart’s threat. The threat may simply be an expression of an intention to resort to a strong BATNA (or best alternative to a negotiated agreement). By inquiring about the other side’s needs and alternatives, you can determine if a zone of possible agreement exists. If so, acknowledge the other side’s BATNA, but suggest ways that you might both better meet both your needs.


Categorise the Threat

When a threat is nothing more than bluffing or base intimidation your approach should be different. If you sense that your rival’s bark is louder than his bite, let him know you’re onto his game. You might tell a “bluffer” – “I don’t consider threats very productive. Let’s put our heads together and come up with some viable solutions.”

Labelling a threat neutralises the negative intent and increases your sense of control. Phrases like:

- “I’m surprised that you’re angry.”

- “What you just said [….insert insult] was uncalled for.”

- “If you are trying to make me feel threatened or uncomfortable, I think that’s beneath you.”

Research done in 1999 (by Lytle, Brett & Shapiro) showed that ‘process labelling’ – calling attention to what’s happening – is the most effective way to get a negotiation that is getting bogged down by threats back on track. Plus, labelling the situation gives your opponent the same detachment you achieve through threat diagnosis, allowing both parties to move on.


Responding and counter-threats

The two most common responses to a direct threat are to offer a direct counterattack, or to immediately concede in an effort to maintain what gains or status you already have. Neither tactic will likely work in the long run. A direct counterattack often leads to an escalation in conflict (see above), and immediate concession shows weakness and invites further intimidation.

If at all possible, threats at the bargaining table should be deflected and the negotiation redirected back toward common interests and goals.


When All Else Fails

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, an opponent will only respond to aggression. In this case, issue a counter-threat to establish your credibility and then immediately shift the focus to identifying common interests.

“If you sue us we will counterclaim, and I believe we will prevail on some or all of our claims. But I think we’d both be better off trying to work out a deal here, and avoid unnecessary legal costs.”


Always have a Plan B.

It is important to show up to the negotiation table with a strong alternative to your desired scenario (or BATNA). Preparation is key in any negotiation, especially once a threat has been issued.

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