Negotiations: Responding to threats

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm


Is there an effective way to respond to threats at the bargaining table?


Inevitably at some point in your career, someone will threaten to walk away, file a lawsuit or replace you with a competitor. Your instinct response might be to stand and fight, or duck and flee. In fact, neuroscientists have found the area of the brain associated with appetite becomes active when verbally challenged and produces a craving for retaliation.

Although a defensive reaction may be instinctive, any counterattack heightens the risk of creating a spiral of conflict that will reduce or eliminate the possibility of finding an agreeable solution. 

Those whose natural inclination is to acquiesce quickly in order to escape the perceived pain of conflict, permanently abandon any ability to find an agreeable solution. This strategy backfires when the opponent realizes that the more pressure he exerts, the more concession he gains, and now adopts this strategy moving forward.  

When dealing with a difficult person, the first rule of thumb is to focus on controlling your behavior, not theirs. In fact, studies show that the most effective way to deal with threats is simply to ignore them. Anne Lytle of the Australian Graduate School of Management, Jeanne Brett of Northwestern University and Debra Shapiro of the University of Maryland found that difficult negotiators abandoned their threats 77 percent of the time when their threats were ignored. 

When threats can not be ignored, here is a four-step process for redirecting the conversation back to interests and agreements:

1. Take a time out

When the heat of the moment causes you to become emotionally unglued, speechless or ready to fire back with both barrels, it’s time to physically remove yourself from the situation. Taking a 10-minute break or rescheduling this negotiation at a future date, allows you to step away, process what has happened and strategize how best to resume negotiations. 

Much of your opponent’s power lies in their ability to make you react. Even when they don’t get the reaction they were looking for, they are rewarded by igniting a cycle of action and reaction, an arena where they are armed to compete. 

It’s not uncommon to encounter people who seem to be missing a certain communications filter. Whatever is on their mind is also on their tongue. They may attack you, even making it personal, which can feed your desire for revenge.  However, this plays right into their strategy. 

After a searing attack, putting distance between you and the other party can help you regain your emotional stability and strategic thinking ability. Clients who have embraced this practice report how quickly they regain their power after being verbally assaulted. When needing to take a break they simply say, “Jack, I’d like to take a break to think. Let’s meet back here in 10.”

When you walk away from the “firing line,” the point of conflict is physically behind you. And when you return, you enter with a fresh perspective. 

When requesting a break, be direct, firm and short-winded. For example, you might say, “Jack, you’ve given me a lot of think about and I need quiet time to process what you’ve just said. Why don’t we take a break and meet back here in 20-minutes.” Or, “Jack, based on what you just said, I’m not sure how to respond.  I’d like to give your words some additional thought before responding. Could we take a break today and resume talks tomorrow? I’d like for us to find a workable solution and right now, I need some time to process all of this. I could meet any time between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. tomorrow. What works best for you?”

2. Assume the observer’s role

When talks resume, adopt a mental attitude of engaged detachment. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Engaged detachment is about being present and emotionally stepping into the observer’s role. This allows you to see both parties interact and attempt to understand the motivations behind their actions, communications, and most importantly, create an emotional buffer between you and the other party. 

Author William Ury, in his groundbreaking book Getting Past No, calls this process “going to the balcony.” He says, “imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then imagine yourself climbing onto the balcony overlooking the stage.”  When you step into the observer’s role, you become a third party who remains detached, evaluates the conflict and objectively assesses both parties. He recommends stepping into this position even before the negotiation begins. This helps you to remain calm and deliberate in your communications from the start. 

From the observer’s position, you will listen to the dialogue, try to understand the motivation behind each party’s communication, and then, with this added insight, adjust your communications to redirect the discussion back to interests and strategy, rather than threats or intimidating techniques. 

3. Disarm your opponent by expressing understanding

If the other party is feeling distrustful, angry, or is convinced he is right and you are wrong, getting him to listen to your point of view requires strategic thinking.  The intention is not about getting him to like you, but rather, simply disarming him long enough to listen.  

The secret to disarming your opponent is to surprise him – do the opposite of what he expects. When he threatens and attacks, he expects you to resist. If he stonewalls you, he expects you to apply pressure. Rather than resisting, listen to him and acknowledge his point of view; this is the easiest concession you can make. Wherever possible, agree with him. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with his exact position, but rather that you understand how he could feel or think a certain way. 

A simple remark like, “Jack, I can understand why that is important to you given the situation at hand” or, “Jack, I can see you feel strongly about this” or, “Jack this is obviously important to you, can you tell me more about what you mean by, ‘There’s just too much at stake?’ or, ‘I know exactly what you mean’or, ‘If I were in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.'”

Giving someone a full hearing takes patience and emotional discipline. Listening without reacting or interrupting is tiring. It’s tempting to interrupt someone when they have their facts wrong or become insulting – but don’t. Continue to maintain eye-contact, take notes if appropriate (this is often perceived to be a complement) and provide encouragement so the other party continues talking by occasionally shaking your head in agreement or saying “I see” or “Uh-huh.”

Ask questions when clarification is needed. For example, “Jack before you continue, could you clarify what you mean by ‘twice baked?’ I’m not sure I  understand what it means in this context.” Or, “Jack, how did you handle that situation?” When you ask to learn, and refrain from overtly judging, you demonstrate you are sincerely interested in listening. This step alone can be very powerful. People who were once hostile may quickly step into neutral ground and give you time to present your position. 

4. Inquire to find the motive behind the message

Imagine that a customer threatens to sue you over a delay with your delivery date.  By asking, “Would a lawsuit be a better option for you than if we continued talking and found a resolution?” You might learn that his largest customer has threatened to renege on their $10 million contract if he misses the date, and this loss would bankrupt his company.

By inquiring about the exact nature of the lawsuit he plans to file, you can determine if this could cause you real harm or not. By asking questions, you can decide if you would let him pursue it or find a mutually agreeable solution. For example, under the circumstances, you might buy raw material from your competitor and ship to him on a just-in-time basis, exactly what he needs and when he needs it to meet his customer’s forecast. 

Finally, there are some threats that are needless attempts to intimidate you.  If you sense the other party’s “bark is worse than his bite,” let him know you’ve got his ticket. You might respond to his threat by saying, “Jack, I’m not a big fan of threats. They breach relationships, not build them. How about if we focus our energy on investigating options so we can mutually agree how to proceed?”

When responding to a threat, the key is to have emotional discipline and to always think before speaking. To respond when you are emotionally unglued is a formula for a disastrous outcome. 

Christine McMahon is the owner of Christine McMahon & Associates, a training and coaching firm in Milwaukee. She can be reached at (414) 290-3344.

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