Should You Ignore a Threat

By on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Threat Response at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Consider how you would respond to threats and ultimatums such as these during a negotiation:

• “If you try to back out, you’ll never work in this industry again.”
• “Give us what we want, or we’ll see you in court.”
• “That’s our final offer. Take it or leave it.”

In the face of such tough talk, should you strike back with a counterthreat? Probably not. Because counterthreats raise the emotional temperature of a negotiation, they will get you even further offtrack. Instead, immediately after hearing a threat (or just after you issue one yourself), call for a break. Rather than storming off, say something like this: “It’s been a long meeting. Why don’t we regroup when we’re feeling fresh?”  
Rescheduling talks for another day will give both sides time to cool down and consider their options. When you’re feeling calmer, analyze the threat, perhaps with a trusted friend or adviser who can provide a reality check.

Here’s one question to consider: Is the other side likely to follow through with the threat? In the heat of the moment, negotiators sometimes issue threats that they later regret. If it’s clear that someone has no intention of following through with a threat, and if she seems contrite or embarrassed about it, you might choose to help her save face by ignoring the threat entirely.

Similarly, when a counterpart threatens you publicly, the threat might not be intended for you at all, Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman write in their book, Negotiation Genius (Bantam, 2007). Rather, she may be trying to save face with others inside or outside the negotiation. In such cases, be aware that she may actually hope that you won’t take the threat seriously.

That appeared to be the case when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev issued a tough public demand to President John F. Kennedy in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Kennedy’s discovery that the Soviets were building a missile base in Cuba had led to a tense standoff between the world’s two nuclear powers. Privately, Khrushchev offered to dismantle the installations if Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba. The next day, however, the Soviets publicly demanded that the United States remove its own missile installations from Turkey.

Following his brother Robert’s advice, Kennedy ignored this demand and instead responded positively to the softer private message—a choice that succeeded in calming tensions and ending the crisis.

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One Response to “Should You Ignore a Threat”

  • political f.

    I think one of the most important things about negotiations and threats is to know whether the other side is bluffing or not. In a legal dispute, you should seek out legal advice (which often can be done for free or for a small fee) on what your position is, then try to ascertain what the costs would be for the litigant to sue you. A lot of negotiation is just knowing whether you are bargaining from a position of strength or weakness. If you are in the latter position, you want to cover up that weakness as much as possible and not volunteer any information that will reveal that weakness. You should also anticipate that other people will also do the same thing: making more aggressive offers and demands than they are willing to back up (such was the case in the Cuban Missile Crisis).

    The key is really to be fully aware of your bargaining position before you take major action (i.e. bargaining, breaking a contract or refusing a demand). If you are unsure, buy time, consider the position of yourself and the other party and then be prepared to offer a counter-proposal and the minimum offer you will accept, then you will be at your maximum bargaining strength.

    -Roy

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