Sooner or later, every negotiator faces threats at the bargaining table. How should you respond when the other side threatens to walk away, file a lawsuit, or damage your reputation? These negotiation tips will help.
Direct counterattacks are rarely the answer. Your threats may not be as powerful or credible as the other side’s, or they could launch an uncontrollable spiral of conflict. Alternatively, you might be tempted to immediately concede to your opponent’s demands, but that would only reinforce his domineering tactics.
Our DEAL approach allows you to respond to threats without conveying weakness or escalating the conflict, redirecting talks toward a focus on each other’s interests.
1. Diagnose the Threat
Sometimes threats emerge as overt declarations: “If you can’t follow through on the contract terms, I’ll let the community know what kind of show you’re running.”
Other times they’re more subtle: “You know, I’d hate for this to hurt your reputation.”
Regardless, it’s critical that you seek to understand what provoked the threat, as its cause could determine your response in negotiation.
The first step in effective threat diagnosis is to remove yourself from the situation – physically and/or psychologically. You might suggest to your counterpart that it’s time for a break, or imagine that you’re an outside observer trying to evaluate the threat more objectively. By detaching yourself from the situation, you can calm your emotions and truly hear what the other side is saying.
Next, consider the motivation behind the threat, which may identify the threat issuer as one of these types:
The victim: If your counterpart was feeling frustrated or offended, the threat may have emerged from his basic need to be heard and acknowledged.
The pragmatist: This straight shooter is simply informing you of the real constraints she faces or the strong outside alternatives she has.
The bluffer: He may be brandishing his power due to insecurity or a desire to dominate. If so, the threat may be more ruse than reality.
2. Express Understanding
As customer service representatives have been taught, the best way to handle a “victim” is to listen to his grievances, acknowledge his feelings, and apologize for his troubles. Such moves can be palliative. New York University professor Tom Tyler has shown that when individuals in conflict express their emotions and tell their side of the story, they’re more satisfied with outcomes – even when these outcomes aren’t in their favor. Expressing understanding can defuse tensions and reduce the risk of additional threats, but be careful not to reward tirades with concessions.
3. Ask Questions
A threat issued by a pragmatist may convey legitimate sources of power or important needs and constraints. Spanish writer Jose Bergamin once said, “A piece of advice always contains an implicit threat, just as a threat always contains an implicit piece of advice.” Your job as a negotiator is to discover the implicit advice in the pragmatist’s threat.
By asking questions, you can unearth novel remedies to her concerns and avoid caving in to surface demands. The goal should be to determine the power or the constraints behind your counterpart’s threat. The threat may simply be an expression of her intention to resort to a strong BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, in the absence of a satisfactory offer. By inquiring about her needs and alternatives, you can determine if a zone of possible agreement exists. If so, acknowledge her BATNA, but suggest ways you might both better meet your needs at the table.
Imagine that a contractor threatens to sue you, a supplier, over a proposed change in the delivery date of raw materials. You can try to discover the motivation for the threat by asking, “Why would a lawsuit be a better option for you than continued talks?”
If he reveals that he expects the courts to rule in his favor, his threat is based on his sense of real power. But if he says your delays could bankrupt his company, he could be informing you of a realistic constraint.
Finally, by inquiring about the exact nature of the lawsuit he plans to file, you can determine if the threat could cause you real harm or if it is just a bluff. By asking questions, you can assess whether you’re willing to let him pursue it, work within the constraints of his underlying concerns, or offer a settlement that takes into account his objective power.
4. Label the Negotiation Threat
When a threat is nothing more than insidious intimidation, your approach should be quite different. If you sense that your opponent’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.”
Labeling a threat neutralizes negative intent and boosts your sense of control. In fact, research by Anne L. Lytle, Jeanne M. Brett, and Debra L. Shapiro in The Strategic Use of Interests, Rights, and Power to Resolve Disputes (1999) demonstrates that process labeling – calling attention to what’s happening – is the most effective way to get a negotiation marred by threats back on track. Labeling the situation gives your opponent the same detachment you achieved through threat diagnosis.
When All Else Fails
Despite your best efforts, sometimes an aggressor will respond only to aggression. In this case, issue a counterthreat to establish your credibility and then immediately shift the focus to identifying each other’s interests, thereby preventing an entrenched battle. Lytle, Brett, and Shapiro have found that this mix of contentious and conciliatory communication can be extremely effective in negotiation.
“I know you think a court could rule in your favor,” you might tell the litigious contractor, “but recent rulings lead us to believe we’d prevail. I think we’d both be better off trying to work out a deal and avoid trial costs.”
Brett, Mara Olekalns of Melbourne University, and Laurie Weingart of Carnegie Mellon University have found that solutions based on identifying interests often don’t occur until after parties have had a chance to signal their own power and assess the other party’s power. When confronted with a particularly aggressive threat, display your strength, but demonstrate your preference for negotiating at the level of interests.
How to you manage conflict during a negotiation? Leave us a comment.
Adapted from “How to Defuse Threats at the Bargaining Table” by Katie A. Liljenquist and Adam D. Galinsky.
Originally published in 2013.