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Dealing with threats – 8 tips for dealing with “aggressive” negotiating partners – Part 1

“The Roman-German Emperor Frederick II of Staufen (1194 – 1250) once said: “Threatening noise is donkey braying. Nevertheless, threats are part of everyday life in negotiations.

In international politics, Russia threatens to station Russian troops in Cuba and Venezuela if the U.S. does not respond to Moscow’s demands, the EU, in turn, threatens Russia with economic sanctions. In collective bargaining, there are threats of strikes, and in price negotiations, for example, of delisting.
Too often, we treat threats at the negotiating table differently than other aspects of a negotiation. There is no reason to do so. Threats can be part of a negotiation, just like any other behavior.
We all have to negotiate with difficult people sometimes.

They might be stubborn, arrogant, hostile, greedy, or dishonest. Sooner or later, every negotiator at the bargaining table is also threatened.

Even “reasonable” people (though we could write a separate post on
the meaning of the terminology “reasonable” in negotiations) can become adversaries in negotiations: A teenage daughter can be charming one moment and hurl insults at you the next. Your boss can be cooperative and understanding most of the time, but suddenly make an “irrational” demand on a Friday afternoon and garnish it with a threat. A long-time customer can suddenly threaten you with delisting if you don’t immediately give 10% in price.

How do you deal with this? How can you respond when the other side threatens to walk away, file a lawsuit, or damage your reputation?

1. Don’t let your amygdala hijack (self-control)

Even a difficult or irrational negotiator will negotiate with you. They may do this in an unpleasant or obnoxious way, but they will negotiate, even if this form does not correspond to your ideas of a negotiation. They negotiate because they have to negotiate and because they need or want something from you – otherwise they would simply decide or act even more to your disadvantage instead of negotiating.

However, your counterpart sometimes does not realize this dependence, or they know it and do not show it to you. They want to avoid the appearance of self-perceived dependence – especially in front of you. But also not infrequently in front of themself or/and their team – because otherwise the subjectively perceived power towards you will be lost. This often only perceived power potential must not be underestimated. It also acts as real power; but only with one precondition: You accept this behavior. You “play along” as paralyzed, fleeing, or cornered – or as a provoked and attacking “victim” who then becomes the “perpetrator” yourself.

This phenomenon can be explained neuropsychologically and has established itself under the technical term “hijacked amygdala”. This represents an inappropriate emotional reaction to a perceived threat because the amygdala is the emotional center of the human brain and creates responses in a split second when a person feels threatened.

The important thing now is that you still act in a controlled manner during this process and do not simply react. Don’t let yourself become a “reaction machine.” Control your own emotions. Breathing helps control cognitive impulses.

The U.S. Special Forces Navy SEALs call it “arousal control.” But this is about something different than you might think: Special Forces training teaches how to use breathing to inhibit physiological arousal, that is, the human “fight, flight or freeze” response. Breathing is the link between the sympathetic nervous system, which puts us in reaction mode, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which returns us to normal state when a stressful situation is over[1]. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, hormones such as cortisone, adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are released, triggering an instantaneous physical and psychological response and readying the body for a strong reaction to danger. However, in a world where “danger” is often intangible, this response often has harmful effects when we lack the ability to rebalance these systems and prevents us from acting in a goal-oriented manner, for example, in a negotiation[2].

Breathe once deeply into your abdomen and then proceed with the next steps.

2. Reduce the threat

There is something behind a threat. It is your job to find out. However, under no circumstances should the threat be repeated or ignored. Repeating leads to a manifestation of what was said at the negotiating table. By ignoring it, the other side does not feel recognized and valued, and may react with even stronger aggression. This time, however, it is not triggered by the topic, but by your behavior towards the negotiating partner. And this is regardless of whether there is a real issue or the threat is only used as a bluff. Even less helpful is a counter-threat. This centers the negotiation entirely on the relationship between the two negotiators and can steer the conversation right off a cliff.

So how do you handle it when your counterpart says, “If I don’t get a 10% discount right now, I’m going to list you and your company out.” This obvious threat must be immediately reduced and objectified “If I understand you correctly, then you are thinking about various alternatives based on changed framework conditions. We should therefore focus on our common goal …”

  • Thinking instead of doing
  • Alternatives instead of discontinuation

Minimize a threat by using your own words to reduce the pressure and take the image of the real threat out of your counterpart’s mind.

3. Show understanding but not concession

As customer service representatives in a wide variety of companies are learning, the best way to deal with an “emotional sufferer” is to listen to their complaints, acknowledge their emotions, and take an interest in their issues. Tom Tyler, a professor at New York University, has shown that people in conflict who express their emotions and tell their side of the story are more satisfied with the outcomes – even if those outcomes are not in their favor [3]. Expressing understanding can defuse tensions and reduce the risk of additional threats. However, be careful not to reward tirades with concessions.

4. Diagnose the threat

Sometimes threats occur as overt statements, as is described above. In other cases, they are more subtle: “You know, I would really regret it if this damaged your reputation.” In either case, it is important to understand what triggered the threat, as the cause may have determined the counterpart’s response.
The first step to effective threat diagnosis is to remove yourself physically and/or psychologically from the situation.

  • You might suggest to your counterpart that it’s time for a break to take the “steam” out of the situation.
  • You can imagine that you are an external observer who tries to evaluate the threat more objectively. This so-called “dissociated behavior” causes you to detach from the situation. This way you reduce your emotions (don’t let your amygdala hijack) and can really hear what the other side is saying.
    Next, consider the motivation behind the threat, which can identify the threatener as one of these types:#The Victim: If your counterpart felt frustrated or offended, the threat may have emerged from a basic wounded psychological need, such as to be heard and acknowledged.

    The Insecure: They simply do not know how to negotiate with you or have not learned any skills to do so. The only thing they know how to do is threaten. Help them negotiate [4].

    The Direct: They inform you directly of the real constraints they face or the strong external alternatives you have. They bring this to the table aggressively in terms of language, but will also be solution-oriented in looking for options.

    The Bluffer: They are trying to test your dependency on the business/topic. If this is the case, threat may be more tactic than reality. If you react here by giving in too quickly, you have educated them. They will do it again and again and think that it’s actually you who are the bluffer.

You will learn the other tips 5-8 on dealing with threats next month, and even more on dealing specifically with irrational negotiators, analyzing bluffs, and negotiation psychology here.





[4] Wie Sie verhandeln lernen finden Sie hier:

Thorsten Hofmann, C4 Institute, Quadriga University Berlin

Thorsten Hofmann leads the CfN (Center for Negotiation) at the Quadriga University Berlin’s Institute for Crisis, Change and Conflict Communication C4. He is an internationally certified Negotiation Trainer and advises corporations and organisations in complex negotiation processes.