Have you ever sat across from someone at the negotiation table who eventually stops bargaining and instead starts giving ultimatums?
I’m referring, of course, to the use of intimidation and fear tactics at the bargaining table: someone who threatens to stop negotiating to begin legal action or damage your character and status. How should you respond when the other side begins issuing threats?
The two most common and automatic responses are to offer a direct counterattack or to immediately concede in an effort to maintain what gains or status you already have; however, both tactics won’t work in the long run. A direct counterattack often leads to an escalation in conflict, and immediate concession shows weakness and promotes further intimidation. Instead, threats at the bargaining table should be deflected and the negotiation redirected back toward common interests and goals. Here’s a road map for the next time you find yourself face-to-face with a threat at the negotiation table.
Analyze. The first step is to realize that a threat has been made in the first place. Sometimes threats are overt and obvious, but other times they are subtle. The best way to realize what you’re dealing with is to take a step back from the situation so that you can observe it dispassionately. This might just be psychologically, or you might even want to call a break – or even just take a sip of water – to give yourself time to assess.
Empathize. Being able to empathize and understand your opponent’s perspective is critical to achieving a good result. This is especially difficult after he or she has issued a threat against you. By suppressing your automatic reaction toward either anger or fear, you are better able to empathize with your opponent and begin to question what he or she is after. As you figure that out, you will know how to respond to their threat.
Question. What does your opponent want? By focusing the conversation on what they want, and how you can get it for them through negotiation, you calm tensions, lower the hostility from the issuance of threats, and keep the conversation going. This tactic works best with a straight-shooter; someone who is not actually attempting to threaten but instead informing their opponent of strong alternatives in their arsenal.
Call the bluff. If an opponent’s threat is nothing more than intimidation or is coming from a place of weakness, it might be best to simply call attention to the threat, and therefore neutralize it. Research by Anne L. Lytle, Jeanne M. Brett, and Debra L. Shapiro in The Strategic Use of Interests, Rights, and Power to Resolve Disputes suggests that calling attention to, or labeling, a threat is the best way to get a negotiation back on track. This was the tactic recently used by Nike, when Stormy Daniels’s ex-lawyer Michael Avenatti was arrested on charges of trying to extort $25 million from the multinational footwear giant by threatening to reveal damaging claims about them.
A Strong BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). Always have a Plan B. As I have discussed previously, it is important to show up to the negotiation table with a strong alternative to your desired scenario. Preparation is key in any negotiation, especially once a threat has been issued.
Show power. Power both protects you and prompts action. Sometimes an aggressor will respond only to aggression. In such a case, the best solution would be to offer a counterattack to show strength but to then immediately shift the topic back to common interests and goals to avoid trench warfare or a stalemate.
If you focus on these steps and alternative responses, you can answer a threat at the negotiation table in a way that de-escalates the situation and shows strength at the same time.
For further reading, check out the Program on Negotiation’s blog here and look back at my prior posts about power, empathy, preparation, and BATNA.