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Negotiation Skills: Threat Response at the Bargaining Table
Posted By PON Staff On August 18, 2014 @ 3:02 pm In Negotiation Skills | No Comments
Adapted from Threat Response at the Bargaining Table, first published in the January 2008 issue
of Negotiation
When someone issues a threat or an ultimatum, take a step back and diagnose the
Consider how you would respond to threats and ultimatums such as these during negotiation:
If you try to back out, youll never work in this industry again.
Give us what we want, or well see you in court.
Thats 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 off track.
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: Its been a long meeting. Why dont we regroup
when were feeling fresh?
Rescheduling talks for another day will give both sides time to cool down and consider their
When youre feeling calmer, analyze the threat, perhaps with a trusted friend or adviser who can
provide a reality check.
Here are three questions to consider:
Question 1
Is she likely to follow through with the threat?
In the heat of the moment, negotiators sometimes issue threats that they later regret. If its 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 wont 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, as
Katie A. Liljenquist and Adam D. Galinsky describe in an article on defusing threats in our
September 2006 issue of Negotiation. Kennedys discovery that the Soviets were building a missile
base in Cuba had led to a tense standoff between the worlds 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 Roberts advice, Kennedy ignored this demand and instead responded
positively to the softer private messagea choice that succeeded in calming tensions and ending
the crisis.
Question 2
Sometimes a threat shouldnt be ignored.
If you think a disgruntled supplier intends to follow through on his threat to smear your good
name, you need to defuse the situation.
Even if a threat appears to be a bluff, the other side may be communicating a very real need to be
heard and understood.
Active-listening skills will help you get to the heart of the matter, writes Harvard Law School
professor Robert C. Bordone in his May 2007 Negotiation article, Listen Up!
First, paraphrase back to your counterpart what he said to you as accurately as possible.
Paraphrasing tells the other party how his message came across and gives him the chance to
clarify or amend it. In addition, when you are faced with a difficult counterpart, naming the game
in this manner signaling that you are aware that you were just threatened sometimes is
sufficient to defuse a threat.
Second, probe the other partys point of view by asking open-ended questions. You might ask an
unsatisfied customer questions such as these: Do you think it would be worthwhile for us to try to
work this out? Why does a threat seem like the best path right now?
Because inquiry challenges the other party to reveal the reasoning behind the threat, it could
uncover misunderstandings and allow you to work together to change the game, steering talks in
a more collaborative direction.
The third and most difficult step in active listening, according to Bordone, is to acknowledge the
emotions behind the other sides message - what he is not saying.
Im sensing a lot of frustration on your part, you might tell the angry customer. Id like to hear
more about your feelings before we try to move forward.
Simply talking about the emotions that fuel threats can ease tensions and get you back on
common ground.
Question 3
What did I do to trigger the threat?
Active listening
may lead you to recognize that legitimate complaints and concerns underlie
your counterparts threat.
When you voice these concerns, you show the other side that you care about and understand her
perspective, while also making your own position stronger, write Malhotra and Bazerman in
Negotiation Genius. Of course, when youve wronged someone, its not enough to promise to
address the situation.
Youll have to follow through in a timely manner.
Thats a lesson that Internet company Google appeared to learn after failing to negotiate an
to pay media conglomerate Viacom to host Viacom content on Googles YouTube
video-sharing subsidiary. YouTube users had been posting Viacom content, such as clips of South
Park and The Colbert Report, in violation of copyright law.
Google promised to unveil a new technology to identify and filter licensed content from YouTube
by the end of 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal, but that deadline passed with no action.
In March
2007, Viacom filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Google for willful copyright infringement and
profiting from the illegal conduct of others.
Media industry insiders viewed the lawsuit as a threat designed to pressure Google into working
out a deal. In October 2007, Google unveiled its long-awaited content-filtering softwarean olive
branch that suggests it viewed the Viacom lawsuit as a significant threat.
A final note: Our advice assumes that the threat issuer is a reasonable but frustrated person who
wants to cooperate with you. If threats seem to be a standard tactic in a particular negotiators

playbook, thoroughly investigate your alternatives to dealing with her.
Related Article: Dealmaking Negotiations How To Build Trust at the Bargaining Table
Learn how to negotiate like a diplomat, think on your feet like an improv performer, and master
job offer negotiation like a professional athlete when you download a FREE copy of Negotiation
Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better

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