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Dealing with threats – 8 tips for dealing with “aggressive” negotiating partners – Part 2

Dealing with threats

It is not unusual that threats are part of many negotiations. That we do not know how to deal with them, on the other hand, is rather unusual. How to deal with a threat in a professional manner so that it does not become a menace was already covered in the first part of this article.

Therein, you learned about the importance while negotiating under threats of

1. not allowing your Amygdala to become hijacked,
2. reducing the threat,
3. showing understanding without making any concession, as well as
4. precisely analyzing the threat

To make dealing with threats even more professional and to defuse the threat, included here are now four additional tips:

5. Steer the negotiation to safe ground

A threat emanating “directly” from your negotiating counterpart may convey legitimate sources of power or important needs and constraints. Spanish writer José Bergamin once said, “A piece of advice always contains an implicit threat, just as a threat always contains an implicit piece of advice.” Your job as a negotiator is to discover the implicit advice present in every “threat.”

Imagine for a moment that a contractor is threatening to sue you as a supplier over a proposed change in the delivery date of raw materials. You can try to figure out the motivation for the threat by asking, for example, “Why might a lawsuit be a better option for you than continuing our discussions?” “What might be the downsides of suing as opposed to continuing our talks?“1 (Learn more here about rhetoric used in threats).

If your negotiating counterpart reveals that they expect the courts to rule in their favor, their threat is based on their sense of subjectively perceived power. If you do inquire about the precise nature of the lawsuit they would like to file, you can determine whether the threat has the potential to cause you serious harm, whether it has been thought-through, or whether it is more of a bluff. However, if your counterpart says that your delays could bankrupt their company, you can proceed to negotiate a realistic limitation.

Ask your way through their threat. By doing so, you also steer the conversation away from the threat and find out additional information about the interests, motives, and needs that underly this threat. Asking questions can bring many things to the surface. Use different questioning tactics such as circular questions, alternative questions, vision questions, or question forms such as PASCAL or FOCA2 (learn more about flexible rhetorical questioning techniques here).

The goal here is always to determine the subjective power or actual limitations of your counterpart that lie behind the threat your counterpart makes. And, as already mentioned in the last post, the threat can also be merely an expression of your counterpart’s intention to test your dependence on the deal.

6. Label the threat to the negotiation

If it emerges that a threat is nothing more than a tactical approach used to intimidate you, your approach should change. If, during your analysis, you determine that your counterpart is trying to bluff at you, you should explain that you are not interested in this type of negotiation. You might tell a bluffer something such as “I take that statement as a threat. In fact, I don’t think threats are very productive. Let’s think about this together to find a workable solution.”

The Labeling of a threat neutralizes the negative intent of the threat and strengthens your sense of control. In fact, extensive research by Anne L. Lytle, Jeanne M. Brett, and Debra L. Shapiro shows that process labeling – which focuses one’s attention on what is taking place – is the most effective way to reengage a negotiation that has been clouded by a threat. When you put a flag on the situation, your counterpart gets the same distance as you yourself got from the diagnosis of the threat.

7. Eliminate the time pressure

Sometimes there are simple reasons for a threat that nevertheless don’t immediately make it to the negotiating table. Time pressure can cause the other party’s negotiator to say “no” to a deal or to create a threat when it would be better for them to say yes. Therefore, make sure all parties have adequate time to review all drafts, proposals, and contracts. If you need a break yourself, make sure to take it.

8. Be prepared to leave

Despite your best efforts, sometimes your counterpart will only respond to a clear line. In this case, issue a walk-away to reinforce your credibility, and then immediately focus on identifying each other’s concerns to prevent a deadlock. Lytle, Brett, and Shapiro have found that this mix of contentious and conciliatory communication can be extremely effective in negotiations. Having worked in crisis negotiations at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and INTERPOL, I can attest to this from practical experience.

Therefore, if your counterpart continues to operate with threats, you should warn them. Warn them that there is a clear limit.

Perhaps you are now saying: Surely we should do without a counter-threat? Aren’t a warning and a threat the same thing? Words are interpreted by us humans. But you as the communicator are also responsible for the interpretation of your words. The crucial difference between a warning and a threat lies in the wording and the tone in which it is delivered. In terms of content, the same statement can have completely different consequences depending on how it is worded. It does not help us at this point to work with recriminations and to destroy the relationship level with our negotiating counterpart. Here, too, we remain empathetic and consistent in controlling our negotiation opponent. We now have to find a formulation that is perceived by the counterpart as a warning, but not as a threat. It must be possible to see from this that a break-off of the negotiations is a serious possibility. How can you do this in the most clever way? What is the difference between a warning and a threat?

A threat is always directed specifically against a person. No matter with whom I am negotiating, whether it is a hostage-taker or a customer, as soon as I say, “If you don’t stop threatening, then at this point the negotiation will fail,” I am clearly assigning the blame for the failure of the negotiation to the other party. The clear and all too human reaction to such an attribution of blame is to reject it. Who likes to voluntarily put on that shoe? With such wording, you inevitably get caught in a spiral of blame. Your counterpart will immediately try to pass the buck back to you, which will lead to one accusation after the next. You will certainly not achieve a result in this way.

A warning, on the other hand, is not an accusation. It forces the negotiating parties to imagine a future in which failure of the negotiations could be imminent, but it involves the agency and control of the counterpart. In a conversation with a customer, it might say, “Dear customer, we have made a lot of progress and have already achieved some things. However, we also have reached a point here where I’m concerned about whether we can still work together in the future.” And now comes the decisive formulation, a question for which it is particularly important to also be congruent in body language and verbal language: “Have you given up on these negotiations (or “this project”)?” Very important: Use only this sentence. Do not provide any room for interpretation, for example, by explaining how you came to this assumption. Do not add any other words, and instead let this one sentence stand on its own.

By doing this, you are quite clearly bringing two points to the forefront: The question of whether your counterpart is bluffing, and the suggestion that you yourself are not bluffing. Moreover, you are not shifting responsibility to someone else. You are merely emphasizing the concern that you will not be able to achieve a result collectively in the future. The wording shows the consequences of possible failure and forces the other person to justify themself. Specifically, for why they’re “giving up.” Who likes to give up? It is a question that addresses the self-image and one’s own “strength”. Giving up is perceived as weakness. In this way, you avoid the blame spiral because, while being unequivocal, you leave the door open for the other party to re-enter the negotiation. In other words, you win over the counterpart, and you do not create the impression that you are threatening your negotiating partner. Threats turn the other person into an opponent and generate resistance; warnings open up the possibility of still achieving a goal together.

Mara Olekalns and Jeanne Brett of Melbourne University and Laurie Weingart of Carnegie Mellon University, among others, have found that solutions based on the identification of interests often occur only after the parties have had an opportunity to signal their own power and assess the power of the other party. Show your strength when confronted with a particularly aggressive threat, but show your preference for settlement in the context of negotiation.

With these tools, threats are no longer a menace to you. You can further fill your toolbox of negotiation rhetoric and verbal and nonverbal negotiation psychology in a professional and practical way here.


[1] Mehr zum Thema Verhandlungsrhetorik:

[2] Mehr zum Thema Fragetechniken:

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.