The upside of threats

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Negotiation researchers have long studied how to use “carrots”-promises of mutual gains-to induce agreement. Less attention has been given to “sticks,” specifically, the effectiveness of threats.

Threats often have a negative connotation-understandably so, as they’ve often been associated with offers that can’t be refused or, in some cases, warnings of annihilation. But sometimes threats are justified. If your vendors are pricing themselves out of the market, you need to tell them that you’ll take your business elsewhere. Likewise, when someone is being hostile or condescending, he needs to know that he had better change his behavior or you’ll walk away from the bargaining table.

Making a threat, then, can actually work to everyone’s advantage. A threat not only protects the speaker from being bullied, but it also alerts one’s counterpart of the risk of overplaying her hand. Not all threats are equally effective, however. First and foremost, they have to be credible. A recent study by Stanford University researchers Marwan Sinaceur and Margaret A. Neale indicates that threats also have to be properly timed and framed.

Explicit threats (“Pay me what you owe, or I’m going to court”) may be more effective late in the process, when the parties reach a moment of truth. If uttered too soon, they are more likely to be read merely as aggressive or as positional bargaining. In the early stages of negotiation, subtle warnings may have a greater impact than threats. As the researchers note, leaving the consequences of noncompliance uncertain may prompt the listener “to speculate about (the worst) possible consequences.” If you’re deft, you may leave the listener in doubt about whether he’s actually been threatened.

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