Threats in Negotiation: When and How to Make Effective Threats

Threats in negotiation can escalate conflict, trigger impasse—and occasionally lead to breakthroughs. Donald Trump’s frequent threats as U.S. president illuminate threat dos and don’ts.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

threats in negotation

What should you do when the other party won’t give you what you want in negotiation? Many negotiating tactics are available: Offer multiple proposals to find out what they value most, make tradeoffs to convey you’re willing to concede, find a different negotiating partner, and so on. Making threats in negotiation is another common strategy—one that Donald Trump frequently employed as U.S. president.

During his term in office, Trump threatened to have former secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrested, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, to rewrite libel laws to punish perceived adversaries in the media, to revoke a license from NBC, and to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, writes Peter Baker in the New York Times. Trump didn’t follow through on those threats, but he did on others, such as threats to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies and to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

In fact, Trump relied more on threats than any president in U.S. history, Gettysburg College professor Shirley Anne Warshaw told the Times. Past U.S. leaders generally have been too concerned about the reputational damage of failing to follow through on threats and possible repercussions of carrying them out, including retaliation. We take a closer look at Trump’s threats in negotiation to identify when threats work and when they don’t.

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Walls and Other Borders

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly promised he would get Mexico to pay for a border wall with the United States if elected. When Mexico said it would do no such thing, the Trump campaign said it would induce compliance by threatening to cut off the roughly $25 billion that Mexicans living in the United States send to family members in Mexico each year, a move of questionable legality. Once in office, Trump dropped that threat and instead asked Congress to fund his desired wall.

In March 2019, with record numbers of migrants fleeing their Central American homelands, Trump threatened Mexico once again, this time by tweeting that he would close the Mexican border “if Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border.” 

The threat alarmed many U.S. business leaders, given that $1.7 billion in goods and services cross the U.S. southern border daily, along with 500,000 legal workers, tourists, and others. A week later, Trump backed down.

A New Deal?

In May 2019, Trump threatened to impose punishing import tariffs on Mexican goods if the Mexican government didn’t take new steps to stem the immigration crisis.

Mexican officials promised to deploy the nation’s national guard to the Guatemalan border and to allow asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their U.S. legal cases were resolved. However, Mexico refused to agree to a “safe third country” treaty that would allow the United States to reject asylum seekers if they had not first sought asylum in Mexico.

“Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!” Trump tweeted. In fact, Mexico had made the same promises in secret talks months before, and the plan was already underway, the Times reported. Trump hinted that another secret agreement was in the works, a statement Mexico denied.

A Pattern of Threats in Negotiation 

The Times’s Baker described Trump’s approach to difficult negotiations: “When the goal seems frustratingly out of reach through traditional means, threaten drastic action, set a deadline, demand concessions, cut a deal—real or imagined—avert the dire outcome, and declare victory.” When it becomes clear past goals aren’t being met, the process repeats itself.

In addition to allowing crises to fester, this pattern of threats in negotiation conveys to the counterparts dealing with threats that they can safely be ignored or addressed with hollow promises. The pattern also paints the U.S. government as an unreliable negotiating partner. Because the Trump administration had already engaged in a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, the threat of new tariffs on Mexican goods sent the message that “No deal is ever a done deal,” writes Neil Irwin in the Times.

Delivering Effective Threats in Negotiation

When you’ve exhausted all efforts to foster collaboration and your counterpart still won’t budge, a threat can help break through impasse. But to be effective, threats in negotiation need to have the following characteristics, according to Adam D. Galinsky and Katie A. Liljenquist:

  • They convey that you’re prepared to follow through in the event of noncompliance. No one will heed your threat if you routinely back down from them.
  • They are carefully crafted in advance to satisfy both parties’ interests, rather than delivered rashly under a cloud of emotion.
  • They allow both parties to exit the negotiation with their pride intact. Give the other party a face-saving way to meet your demands. If they do, don’t gloat; express gratitude.
  • They express unambiguous consequences of failing to meet your demands. The more precisely you convey your expectations, the easier it will be for the other party to comply.

What other advice do you have for delivering or responding to threats in negotiation?

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