Questioning threats

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “How to Defuse Threats at the Bargaining Table,” by Katie A. Liljenquist (professor, Brigham Young University) and Adam D. Galinsky (professor, Northwestern University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

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?

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 and try 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.

A threat issued by a “pragmatist” may convey legitimate sources of power or important needs and constraints. Spanish writer José 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 potential 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 proposed changes 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.

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