How to Respond to Threats in a Negotiation

You know the feeling. It’s a combination of disappointment, frustration, and nerves. Your palms might feel sweaty, perhaps you can’t quite find the words to respond. Your counterpart, with whom you were casually negotiating mere minutes ago, has dropped a bomb. You’ve just been threatened in your negotiation.

Cue the adrenaline. Your fight or flight response has been engaged. You react without thinking and threaten back. Which felt right in the moment, but now it only seems to have exacerbated the tension. You both walk away from this heated exchange with resentment and a relationship that will need to be rebuilt from the ashes. Sound familiar?

This is not an uncommon experience. Many negotiators in a heightened emotional state will threaten their counterparts. What does this mean for us? How should we respond to threats? What can we do to navigate this experience and get the negotiation back on track?

Let’s explore three possibilities popularised by Roger Fisher and William Ury from Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation.

  1. Re-frame the threat
  2. Acknowledge the threat
  3. Reality test the threat

Re-frame the threat

We need to shift our mindset and see threats for what they really are. To put it simply, threats can be seen, simply, as an alternative your counterpart could exercise to meet their needs, separate from your negotiation. Often, it’s their best alternative, being revealed by their loss of control. Rather than you being thrown off balance in response to their threat, you might consider the following;

Write down in advance of meeting up, what the alternatives are that might be available to your counterpart/s. ie If they had to, how might they meet their needs away from this negotiation?

This does two things. Firstly, it changes how you see the threat and secondly, we’re less triggered to respond to a threat if we’ve mentally prepared for its possibility.

Acknowledge the threat

Where to from here? Now that we understand that threats are alternatives, where do we take the conversation? We acknowledge their threat. Make sure they understand that we hear and acknowledge the recourse they have available to them, separate from this negotiation. By doing this in a calm and unprovocative tone, we’re signalling to our counterpart that we’ve received their message loud and clear. We make them feel heard.

Reality Test the threat

Often our counterparts will threaten in a knee jerk reaction because of the way they are feeling – without thinking things through. In these situations, it’s important to apply some objectivity to their threat. Why don’t you be the person who pulls the tone back to reasonable and unemotional.

Reality testing is a way to apply an objective evaluation to an emotion or thought. In a curious and non-aggressive tone, we need to highlight external factors that might not currently be considered. For example, individuals often threaten to take their counterparts to court. In response to this, we might consider saying, “Court is an option and it would likely take 3-6 months to resolve. It would also cost between $10K- $20K each, not to mention the personal stress and energy we would exhaust in the process. There’s also the added cost of not resuming our normal business. I don’t know about you; I think we can do better.”

These are some of the strategies we cover in our workshop, ‘The Skilful Negotiator’. Throughout this workshop, we explore your existing approach to negotiation and apply a robust framework to increase outcomes, improve confidence and build lasting relationships.

Follow the link to learn more about CMA’s offerings in Negotiation skills training.

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